Why children lie and what to do about it

Children lie more than adults because they do not understand that lying is morally wrong
Why children lie and what to do about it

All of us lie at one time or the other. However, children lie more than adults because they do not understand that lying is morally wrong. Research suggests that children can effectively tell a lie at an age as young as two years old and lie most during the age of 4 to 6 years. As they grow older, the frequency of lying decreases when they realize that lying is wrong and they could get punished if their lies are caught. But what happens when children don’t stop and lie persistently?

A study which examined the lying behavior of 1,128 girls and boys for three years from the age of six years to eight years, and then followed up at the ages of 10 and 11 years found that there was no increase in disruptive behavior with age but children who lied more often displayed behavioral problems.

It is important to first understand why children lie and the different kinds of lies they might tell. Most of the times, children lie to cover up something for which they might get punished. For example, they may say they ate only one candy when they actually ate five. They also lie about inconsequential things. They may say “I didn’t do it” when you see them next to a tumbler of spilled water. They may even lie to test an adult’s reaction. Sometimes, they make up stories to cover up things they were supposed to do, but didn’t. For example, “The dog took all my crayons and I couldn't finish the coloring.”

While all these lies are particularly harmless and can even be percieved as entertaining, if they are not discouraged, it might become problematic. Let's look at some signs when lying among children may become problematic.

  • When the lying is persistent

  • When the lying behavior occurs across situations such as, with friends, in school, at home, with grandparents

  • When they show no guilt or sadness after being caught lying

  • When lying is accompanied by other behavioral problems like stealing, cheating, throwing tantrums

If you see these signs in your child, you may consider seeking professional help from a child psychologist.

Below are a few things you could do yourself to discourage the habit of lying:

  • Play along and extend the lie: Sometimes, it is beneficial for you to play along with the lie. For example, if a child says, he did not finish his work because the dog took the crayons, ask him “Why would the dog do that?”. Go on until the child is forced to confess the truth. This works with younger children well.

  • Avoid lying to your child: Sometimes, as adults, we might use white lies to console a child or to avoid conflict. For example, you may say that a fairy took away the child’s bottle and gave a mug for him to drink milk. Although these are harmless, when the children slowly realize that this, in fact, is not true, they may think it’s okay to lie. Young children do not understand the difference between a white lie and a true lie.

  • Avoid situations where the child may be tempted to lie: Avoid asking questions where you feel the child may be tempted to lie. For example, if they have messed up the room, instead of asking if he did it or not, tell him that it’s a mess and it needs to be cleaned.

  • Stay calm when the child admits to a mistake: If the child admits to something wrong he did, do not get angry as this could make the child lie the next time instead of being honest to avoid negative consequences.

  • Do not label the child: Children are sensitive to labeling and if you label a child as a ‘liar’ they might think it’s an integral part of them and no matter what they do, they are going to be called a liar.

Written with inputs from Dr Poorva Ranade, a child psychologist and counselor.


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