Everyone lies. When we receive a gift we don’t like, we lie to spare the gift-giver’s feelings and insist that we love it! When our child asks how we liked the trumpet solo he’s been practicing, we gush about how amazing it is—even though it definitely was not. Kids lie, too. The challenge for parents is to address lying in an age-appropriate and reasonable manner.

Why Kids May Choose to Lie

Kids’ reasons for lying are similar to adults’ reasons for lying: to be polite, to impress or protect someone, because they know they’ve done something wrong and fear they’ll get in trouble, to fit in, to get out of doing something they don’t want to do, and to test their boundaries. Developmentally, experts say, lying progresses in four stages:

  • Children three and under typically lie to protect themselves. For instance, if they accidentally spill a glass of milk they may leave the scene and later insist, “I didn’t do it!” They’re afraid to make you angry.
  • Children between the ages of three and seven have vivid imaginations and sometimes the line between fantasy and reality becomes blurred. These are the ages when imaginary friends may join your family.
  • Children aged five to ten are discovering what the concept of “lying,” as it relates to intentionally misleading someone, really means. Kids in this age range tend to self-police one another and tattle on others for lying.
  • By age 10, most kids understand what it means to lie and are more apt to lie intentionally to test their boundaries.

Intention Matters

Research conducted by researchers at McGill University suggests that from the age of six on, children of all ages learn to accurately detect when someone is telling a lie. However, between the ages of 10 and 12, kids begin to subconsciously weigh the intention behind a lie to determine if the person telling it should be punished.

As a parent, that’s a worthwhile question to ask yourself when deciding how to react when you catch your child in a lie. Did he lie to get away with something forbidden or dangerous, or to get out of doing something he doesn’t want to do? Or did he lie because he’s scared of disappointing you, getting someone in trouble, or hurting someone’s feelings? Lying becomes problematic when it involves an issue that can harm the child or others, whether physically, academically, financially, socially, or otherwise.

The Appropriate Response from Parents

If a child lies about being the source of muddy footprints in the kitchen or insists he cleaned his room when he didn’t, it’s appropriate to talk to him about the virtue of honesty. It’s also appropriate to dish out a reasonable consequence (such as having him wipe up the mud or clean his room immediately).

Lies become problematic when they’re harmful or compulsive. For example, if your child tells you he’s at a friend’s house and you discover he’s actually roaming the neighborhood at night, if he falsely accuses another child of cheating to get him in trouble, or if he tells you he’s studying for a test but is actually playing on his phone, those are serious falsehoods. Additionally, a child who lies compulsively, even about things that are obviously false, such as “Justin Bieber is stopping by the house for dinner tonight,” that could signify a deeper issue that you may want to talk about with a professional.

Make the Punishment Fit the Crime

Research suggests punishing kids for lying could make them more prone to lie in the future. Instead, appeal to their sense of right and wrong—and reward them when, after you confront them about lying, they confess. You’ll still want to dish out consequences, but when you behave rationally, you’re teaching your kids to trust you. For instance, they may feel comfortable coming to you with sensitive topics (peer pressure, bullying, sex, drugs, alcohol, etc.) when they’re older. If you punish them for every transgression, they may simply work to become better liars.

Any time you catch your child being untruthful is a teachable moment—an opportunity to explain the importance of being truthful. Kids will learn naturally how to lie at a young age, your challenge as a parent is to teach them the virtues of being honest and let them know that there are consequences to harmful lies.

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