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Why Do Kids Lie? How To Get Your Kids To Start Telling The Truth

Carla Cain Walther Published by Carla Cain Walther
Published on July 18, 2014

Is there anything more frustrating than watching your children lie their faces off while you stand there in disbelief? Once kids realize they can manipulate the truth, even over the tiniest things, a whole new world of possibilities opens up to them! It's up to you parents to stamp out the behavior. Find out why kids lies and how you can shut it down.

​Dishonesty in children comes in several forms: conveniently "forgetting" things you said, telling half-truths, or concocting fantastical stories that could win them a future Pulitzer prize in fiction.

By a certain age, many kids lie so frequently that it's hard to believe anything that comes out of their mouths.

Sometimes the lies are so unbelievable they have to fess up...

But when children begin to twist the truth so often - and for trivial matters - it needs to be addressed. Lying is an obvious affront to parents. No one wants to raise a kid who can't cop to the truth! At the same time, lying is simply a part of growing up, and indicates that a child is beginning to understand his individuality.

​Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting and creator of AhaParenting, explains that all kids eventually "discover a normal developmental achievement" otherwise known as...lying.

Despite its normality, lying is still a faulty way to interact with other people. ​If your children lie ALL. THE. TIME, you might be tempted to punish them with timeouts in their room, or yell until your voice cracks. But those strategies don't correct the behavior, claims Dr. Markham. "Research confirms that the more severe the punishment, the more skilled kids become as liars.​ If you don't want your child to lie, then do not punish."

Instead, parents should focus on creating a safe environment where kids can tell the truth or admit to dishonesty without fear. In order to do that, you have to understand why kids lie in the first place...

Lying is an expected behavior

"[It's] a natural extension of the amazing realization children make at age three or four that their perceptions are unique to them," Dr. Markham begins.

"In other words, they know that the toy is under the couch because they put it there. But if mom didn't see them put the toy there, she doesn't know it's there. That's an amazing realization to a young child."

Kids lie for the same reasons adults do

Ok, real talk, adults lie to each other a lot and often for good reasons! Sometimes it's an effective way to mask hurtful truths - such as telling a coworker you're too sick to get drinks, when really...you just don't like her. It also helps keep up pretenses, like when you call your mother-in-law to say traffic is crazy and you'll be late for lunch, instead of revealing that you simply slept too late.

​"Lying has a very useful benefit," Dr. Markham explains. "Kids can get what they want more often. This is completely natural, and every child will do it."

Parents do influence lying in their children

As we mentioned before, everyone has told white lies to friends and family. However, it's hard for parents to admit that they aren't always honest with their kids. Dr. Markham asserts that "we lie directly to our children. Not just about the Tooth Fairy or Easter Bunny, but about the toy store being closed today or that the shot at the doctor's won't hurt."

Sure, these fibs seem small, but to a kid who puts all trust in their parents, it's a pretty big assault on that faith."Children DO end up realizing these are lies," Dr. Markham continues. Unfortunately that awareness confirms that "clearly lying is OK if they can get away with it."

Don't ignore the tall tales

You might think ignoring your children's lies will make them stop doing it. Diverting attention from crappy behavior is a tool used by many parents after all. While we understand the impulse to ignore, it probably won't work in the long run.

​According to Dr. Markham, "if the child begins lying and the parents just let it go, the child will continue to lie because it is a useful way of managing the world. So it's important for parents to point out when children misrepresent reality."

Keep away from labels

Never call your children liars even if they come home with absurd and literally unbelievable tales about their day at school.

"Labeling the child as a liar is a self-fulfilling prophecy," Dr. Markham warns. "Our view of them becomes how they see themselves," and the last thing you want your kids to think is that they're incapable of telling the truth!

Call them out in a gentle manner

Subtly informing children that you totally know they aren't being honest is a great way to curb the fibbing and cut down on strict punishment.

"Acknowledge the lie in a non-judgmental way," says Dr. Markham. She uses the hand-washing battle as a perfect example of how to point out a lie without humiliation:

Mom: "You said saying you already washed your hands for dinner. Well, I guess you wish you had washed your hands because those hands aren't clean. Let's go do it together."​

Stop a lie before it forms

If you get the sense your kid is about to blurt out a fabricated story - they're wringing their hands, looking down at the floor - gently say, "it makes me really happy when you tell the truth."

Kids desire a positive and secure relationship with their parents and if telling the truth maintains that relationship, they'll do that more often than lying.

Express how harmful lying can be

Talk it out! Dr. Markham suggests sitting down with your kids in a relaxed setting and explain that lying strains the loving relationship between you and them.

​The more they lie, the more it hurts your heart. "Make it clear that they can always tell you the truth and they will never be punished for it," Dr. Markham says.

Chronic lying is a serious problem

If you suspect that your child is a frequent liar, seek out professional help for, Dr. Markham insists, "the WHOLE family." Children who refuse to tell the truth don't start out that way. Some external factor presented itself, and as difficult as it is to imagine, that factor could be your parenting.

​"Search your own heart to see if you are making it unsafe for your child to tell you the truth. [Habitual lying] is a signal that something is wrong in the family system."

The final word...

At the end of the day, says Dr. Markham, building a secure attachment to your child is crucial for truth-telling. "That is the key to preventing lying - if your child feels close to you and safe with you, she will be much less likely to lie to you."

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