Children of all ages lie.
When your child lies, you may question your own parenting.
While no parent likes to see lying in kids, learning the reasons kids do it is the key to stopping this behavior.
Development of lying
Lying is developmentally normal although it is also a problematic behavior.
Telling Lies is a major developmental milestone associated with the theory of mind.
In the theory of mind, people understand that different people have different mental states that can differ from reality. Children can only understand lying and tell convincing lies if they are aware of their own and others’ mental statuses as well as their own1.
In addition, to be successful, a lie-teller must develop executive functions such as inhibitory control, planning, social development, and interpretation of social norms2.
They must ensure that the content of a false statement does not contradict the lie (semantic leakage control) and incongruent behavior is suppressed (non-verbal leakage control)3.
In some ways, developing these new skills is a good thing for a child’s development.
Lie-telling is ubiquitous across cultures. It generally emerges at a young age during the preschool years and develops rapidly with age.
7 Reasons why kids lie
Children lie for different reasons. Here are the seven most common reasons and the kinds of lies children tell4.
1. They lie to cover-up
Cover-up lies are told to avoid getting punished.
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 truth5.
The likelihood of lying about misbehavior is greater for kids who expect harsh punishment such as spanking6.
2. They lie to explore the possibilities
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.
3. They lie to brag
Whopper lies are told to brag or exaggerate one’s achievement to attain a higher status or save one’s self-esteem. For example, kids may falsely claim to have won an award when in fact they didn’t.
4. They lie to get attention
Blatant lies are attention-seeking lying. When children tell blatant lies, they know that they will be noticed since others know the truth.
5. They confuse imagination with reality
An intentional lie is when a child makes a false statement on purpose with the intent to create false beliefs in others. However, sometimes kids mistake fantasies for real life and unknowingly lie about them.
So when young kids lie about something, 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, these elements are to take the blame or serve what the child wishes to happen.
6. They lie to be polite
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 such situations where politeness is expected.
For instance, when children receive unwanted gifts, they tell lies to adults by pretending to like them7.
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 truth8.
7. They lie to protect others
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’s lie-telling behavior, 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 they are asked follow-up questions9.
How to deal with a child’s lying
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 steps to stop or prevent the pattern of repetitive lying.
Distinguish the type of lies
If you are dealing with younger children, the first step is to find out if they can tell the difference between reality and the child’s imagination.
Kids may simply be confused about what their wishful thinking is as opposed to what actually happens.
Acknowledge and help them make things right
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 a second chance to do the right thing.
Do not punish
You may be surprised about this step. 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)
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 one10.
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 a consequence.
It doesn’t mean you should ignore their mistakes. As mentioned, you must address it and give them the opportunity 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 explanation11.
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 to12.
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 others13.
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.
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