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Why Do Kids Lie and What To Do About It

Development of lying | Why do kids lie | How common is lying among children | How to deal with a child lying

Children lie. We know this. 

When your kid lies, you may question your own parenting. 

While no parent likes to see their child lying, learning why kids lie is the key to stopping this behavior.

Development of lying

Lying is both a normal aspect of development and problematic behavior.

It is considered normal because it is part of normal child development and is ubiquitous across cultures. Children reach this milestone as they develop executive functions such as inhibitory control and planning, social development, and interpretation of social norms​1​.

Lie-telling behavior generally emerges during the preschool years and develops rapidly with age​2​.

It progresses through three levels​3​.

boy lying

Level 1 – Primary lies

It is usually between the ages of 2 and 3 that children first learn to deliberately make untrue statements. Kids at this age, however, are not yet able to understand the moral concept of lying, so the motives are often unclear. The lies could be a play on words, wish fulfillment, or real deception. In most cases, they involve rule violations and the children do not want to get caught.

Level 2 – Secondary lies

Between 3 and 4 years of age, a significant shift occurs. Most children over the age of 4 will tell a lie to cover up their mischief, but they may not be able to maintain the lie consistently. 

Children at this age are still unable to distinguish between a lie, guess, and honest mistake. They think that any statement that is factually incorrect is a lie, regardless of the motives or reasons​4​.

Level 3- Tertiary lies

The third level emerges around 7 or 8 years of age in elementary school children. These children become increasingly adept at telling and maintaining lies. Their subsequent statements will not contradict what they have said earlier, making the lies hard to detect. They have become effective liars.

Around the age of 10, children shift in how they view rules. Family rules are no longer regarded as moral absolutes; instead, adolescents begin to appreciate that rules can sometimes be challenged or violated to benefit individuals and that judgments should be based less on outcomes than on intentions.

They also use context-specific reasoning in social situations. As an example, many adolescents consider deceiving parents as acceptable if their parents restrict their activities.

Why do kids lie

Children lie for a variety of purposes. Here are some of the most common reasons kids lie and the 7 kinds of lies​5​.

Cover-up lie

Cover-up lies are told to avoid punishment.

Deliberate lying behavior in children is, in part, influenced by how they perceive the negative consequences of disclosing the truth versus the positive consequences of telling the truth​6​.

The likelihood of lying about misbehavior is greater for kids who expect corporal punishment​7​.

This type of lie is usually the cause for concern in children.

Exploratory lie

Exploratory lies are told when kids try to find out what’s on the other side of the truth. Children may tell these lies out of curiosity or for fun.

Whopper lie

Whopper lies are told to brag or exaggerate one’s achievement to attain a higher status or save one’s self-esteem. For example, they may falsely claim to have won an award when in fact they didn’t.

Blatant lie

Blatant lies are attention-seeking lying. When children tell blatant lies, they know that they will be noticed because others know the truth.

Fantasy lie

An intentional lie is when a child makes a false statement on purpose with the intent to create false beliefs in others. However, young children sometimes mistake fantasies for real life and unknowingly lie about them.

So when a child lies, it is important to distinguish whether they are confused about fantasies or trying to keep secrets.

Fantasy lies contain elements from a make-believe world. Usually, they are used to taking the blame or serving what children wish to happen.

White lie

From very early on, children are taught not to lie. But in certain social situations, they are also taught, implicitly or explicitly, that they shouldn’t tell the blunt truth. White lies are common in situations where politeness is expected.

For instance, when children receive unwanted gifts, they tell white lies to adults by pretending to like them​8​.

Children as young as 3 are also able to tell white lies to avoid hurting others’ feelings. As an example, if a child believes that admitting wrongdoing will leave their parents disappointed in them, they may lie to conceal the truth​9​.

Altruistic lie

Altruistic lies are told to protect others, usually peers or parents. They may or may not be explicitly asked, but feel that they should do so to help.

How common is lying among children

To study lying in children, researchers have created an experiment called the temptation resistance paradigm experiment.

In this experiment, the researchers explicitly instruct children not to look at or play with a toy when left alone. Most children are unable to obey the researchers’ instructions due to their natural curiosity and difficulty resisting temptation. Once the researcher returns, the child is asked whether they have seen or played with the toy. 

Researchers found that lying increased with age. In this experiment, around one-third of 3-year-olds lied, compared with more than half of those between ages 4 and 7. The older children were also able to maintain their lies when asked follow-up questions​10​.

How to deal with a lying kid

In society, we assume and hope others are honest. 

Socially, lying is discouraged, as it can have negative repercussions for relationships. It can also erode the foundations of our children’s moral character.

Cover-up lying may be one of the first signs of future antisocial or delinquent behaviors in children.

While this is not something that can be changed overnight, parents can try the following to stop children from continuing to lie.

Distinguish the type of lies

First, if you have a young child, find out if they can tell the difference between reality and fantasy, or the difference between truth and lie. 

Kids may simply be confused about what their wishful thinking as opposed to what actually happens.

Acknowledge, make things right, but do not punish

When you find out about an actual lie, calmly address it by telling your child that you know about it. 

Do not engage in a power struggle. Avoid accusatory tone or language. When you use an aversive tone, children tend to disregard what you say. 

If they have done something wrong, ask them to make it right. It could be an apology, makeup homework, or repair. Give them the opportunity to do the right thing.

You may be surprised about the “do not punish” part. After all, punishment is used to discipline all over the world. 

If you make a mistake, you get punished. It seems logical.

However, has our legal system been successful in stopping crime? (the answer is “No” for those who have doubt)

Punishment avoidance is an external incentive. The desire to do what is right is an internal incentive.

External motivation cannot produce the same kind of results as motivation that comes from within.

In the temptation resistance experiment, children who came from a punitive environment lied more than those who came from a non-punitive one​11​.

Nobody in their right mind would subject themselves to punitive punishment. If a child thinks they would be punished for telling the truth, of course, they will lie. It’s human nature to protect yourself.

So, if you don’t want your child to lie and you want them to develop internal motivation to tell the truth, stop using punishment as the consequence.

It doesn’t mean you should ignore their mistakes. As mentioned, you must address it and give them a chance to make it right.

Teach moral values

A child’s moral evaluation of lies is related to their lie-telling behavior. 

Those who value the truth are less likely to lie. They are internally motivated to tell the truth.

Teach children the positive aspects of honest behavior. Even if you have made a mistake, telling the truth feels good because you are doing the right thing. You are taking responsibility and not hiding.

On the other hand, dishonest behavior makes you feel bad because you are deceiving someone. It can cause problems or hurt others. Telling lies can also lead to more lying later to cover up the first lie.

Be a role model of honesty

Most adults admit to lying to their children, according to research. They may lie to children to control their behavior, get them to cooperate, or control their emotions. Sometimes they lie because it is easier than giving an accurate but difficult explanation​12​.

Modeling and imitation are two ways in which children learn. Kids can acquire or reinforce lying behavior by watching their parents lie.

In the temptation resistance paradigm, a school-age child who was lied to was more likely to lie and peek than one who was not lied to​13​.

Children learn what type of behavior is acceptable from their parents. Set a good example for them and model it through your behavior. 

Oftentimes, it does take more time and effort to explain the truth. Children from families where adult lying is accepted will see that lying is normal behavior.

Teach the difference between antisocial lies and white-lies

Not all lies are bad. Adults tell white lies all the time. Children may be confused by why we teach them one thing while doing another.

Antisocial lies are motivated by self-interest. They are intended to harm others, to obtain personal gain, or to avoid punishment.

But white lies are a common form of lies told by adults in everyday life to maintain social relationships. These lies do not harm others​14​.

We must teach children the difference so they can lie in a socially appropriate and effective manner.

Ask children to promise

According to a study, when researchers discussed the difference between lies and truth with children and then asked them to promise to tell the truth, lying was significantly reduced.

Courts use a similar sequence of events when children are called to testify. They believe it has a truth-promoting effect.

Final thoughts on why do kids lie

Kids can be taught the virtue of truthfulness from an early age.

The choice between punishment and no punishment has a much deeper significance than just about lying or not lying.

The difference is between raising a child who strives to do the right thing versus one who only tries to stay out of trouble or not get caught. 

References

  1. 1.
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    Heyman GD, Sweet MA, Lee K. Children’s Reasoning about Lie-telling and Truth-telling in Politeness Contexts. Social Development. Published online August 2009:728-746. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9507.2008.00495.x
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    Talwar V, Murphy SM, Lee K. White lie-telling in children for politeness purposes. International Journal of Behavioral Development. Published online January 2007:1-11. doi:10.1177/0165025406073530
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    Talwar V, Lee K. Social and Cognitive Correlates of Childrens Lying Behavior. Child Development. Published online July 2008:866-881. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2008.01164.x
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    Talwar V, Lee K. A Punitive Environment Fosters Children’s Dishonesty: A Natural Experiment. Child Development. Published online October 24, 2011:1751-1758. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01663.x
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