When your child won't stop lying

When they can't kick their lying habit ...
When they can't kick their lying habit ... Photo: Getty Images

A friend found her DVD player stuffed full of paper. When four year old Sara was asked if she’d done it, she denied it saying “It wasn’t me; it was Daddy who did it!” If you have a child under the ages of five or even ten, chances are you’ve been told it was the dog, the neighbour or Daddy who did something naughty. But before dealing a swift punishment or reprimand to your “lying” child, stop to think about why they might be telling you an untruth.

Various studies have found that it’s normal for children to test out lying, starting as early as two years and increasing until twelve years – the age at which they are considered most dishonest. Po Bronson, co-author of Nurture Shock: New thinking about children states ninety six percent of all children lie while eighty percent of four-years-olds tell fibs once every two hours. By the age of six, almost all children lie on average once every hour.

Why children lie

According to Tania Trapolini, Clinical Psychologist at The Children’s Psychology Clinic in Sydney, the ability to tell untruths signals a new milestone in a child’s brain development. Lying is often considered a sign of intelligence, higher IQ and advanced social skills. Trapolini says, “A child who is going to lie must recognise the truth in their mind, imagine an alternate reality, and manipulate that information convincingly”. Indeed experts consider some lying to be healthy such as when imagination and creativity is in use, “Mummy, my friend (imaginary) wants juice” or to tell a white lie “I really like this present” (when they want to avoid hurting someone’s feelings), or “the dog spilled milk on the carpet” to avoid getting into trouble or risk parental disapproval.

Are children usually aware they are lying? Trapolini explains young children are less aware of the consequences of telling a lie and will usually come up with random lies. Preschoolers tend to concoct transparent fibs such as saying they’ve finished their fruit when it’s still untouched on their plate and are not adept at hiding the incriminating evidence.

Trapolini explains, “Once children reach school going age, the reasons for fibbing become more complex than primarily just avoiding punishment. Being dishonest can prove to increase a child’s power and sense of control – by bragging to peers to assert status, and learning that they can deceive their parents. At around six years, children realise that their parents don’t know everything and more importantly the parents don’t know what the child is thinking.

Managing the lying process

How can parents manage their child’s progress through this phase positively? Trapolini advises parents to stop asking questions they already know the answer to as this sets the child up to lie. For example, there is apple juice spilt in the living room. Instead of asking, “Did you spill juice on the carpet?” It’s better to say, “I know you spilled juice on the carpet even though I asked you to be careful”. Then you can deal with the behavior separately and use an appropriate consequence (e.g. if they spilt the juice or drew on the wall, involve them in helping you clean up).

How to encourage honesty

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Trapolini advises that one way for parents to encourage their children to tell the truth is to say “Tell me what happened”, and to promote honesty and transparency in general, not just when things go wrong. So for example have your child tell you what happened when they went for a play date, and assist them to tell a rational story by asking open-ended questions.

Secondly, encourage and support children by praising them for telling the truth. Say things like “I am really glad you told me the truth. I like it when you are honest”. If you know that your child is deliberately misleading you, explain clearly that lying is not acceptable. Clarify the importance of telling the truth and for you to be able to trust them.

Lastly, children who are used to hearing lies are more likely to tell lies. Your children are constantly observing your behaviours, so white lies should be used sparingly, as it’s difficult for children to distinguish between a white lie and a true lie. Kids under ten years of age often can't differentiate between small lies and big ones - they just know it's happening and it can be learned.

Encourage fantasy and imagination

When fantasy and imagination is at play, Trapolini advises parents to remember that it can get in the way of reality. In fact, pretending and imagining acts are important for children’s development and incorporating fantasy is a natural and healthy quality in children. She recommends against parents labelling this kind of behaviour as ‘lying’. It might be more helpful to say “You have a great imagination!” or “That sounds like fun!”, or to exaggerate the fantasy in a playful manner e.g. if a child says “I have a pet dinosaur”, you might ask what kind of dinosaur, what does it eat and whether it’s laid any eggs.

What is the funniest lie your child has told?

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