Are Your Children Lying? Why Children Lie and How Can You Encourage Truthfulness?

Kimberly wants her children to be honest, but sometimes she accidentally models lying or responds to lies in ways that accidentally perpetuate the problem. For example, When a salesperson calls, Kimberly has her children tell them she is not home. When she’s at a restaurant, she lies about her children’s ages to let them eat off the kids menu. When she is given extra change, she keeps it. 

Kimberly is surprised when she finds out her older son has been lying to her about going to a friend’s house after school and instead has been riding his bike to the park to play soccer.

It was a fluke she even found out.  She had been at the dentist and she passed the park on her way home.  

Now Kimberly feels hurt and betrayed that her son would deliberately lie to her.  If he has been lying about this, what else has he been lying about?

o you ever wonder, “Why do children lie?” Especially when there seems to be no reason for them to lie?  To answer that question, you first need some insights about lying and some practical tips for preventing and responding to lies in ways that teach truthfulness.

Most parents want honest, moral children, yet sometimes unintentionally model lying or respond to lies in ways that perpetuate the problem. Lying seems to be a clear-cut issue, but I’ve trained tens of thousands of parents on the subject and it is one hot topic! As science revealed fascinating facts about brain development and early childhood trauma, we dove into deep discussions about how one’s perceptions influence honesty. This chapter summarizes those insights, offering practical tips for preventing and responding to lies, and teaching truthfulness.

What Is a Lie?

When asked to define a lie, most parents start with it’s “a false statement.” Some add what dictionaries say, that there also must be a deliberate intent to deceive. Others include what researchers do, the passive forms of lying, like not telling the whole truth or omitting information. All of these can be lies — but it depends.

Science has revealed new information about children’s brain development and how the cognitive and emotional parts of the brain interact to create each person’s unique perception of reality. It takes their experiences and the meaning they give them to create beliefs and perceptions about what they believe is true or real.

When children experience trauma it impacts brain development, how safe children perceive the world to be, how they process information and react when under stress or are afraid of being in trouble (even if they wouldn’t be).

Researchers, namely Harvard for one, say chronic stress can become toxic and have similar effects as trauma. Children today are living in a world of chronic stress. Stress responses cause biological changes that negatively affect logical thinking, regulating emotions, and even how some senses function. (For example, increased blood pressure in the vessels of the ear can impact a child’s hearing, which might look like the child is ignoring the parent.)

So, the definition of a lie must include ALL three parts capitalized below:

A lie is a FALSE statement
made by a person who KNOWS what they are saying is not true

Using this definition, a false statement is not a lie if you believe it’s true! So accidentally giving incorrect information, perceiving something as true, or believing a lie and then spreading it are all not lies!

Yet, “white lies,” lies we tell to spare others’ feelings, excuses we give to get out of a jam, and fictional stories, like the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus, are all lies, technically speaking.

 When Do Children Understand Lying?

Children develop their understanding of lying and truthfulness as they move through the typical developmental stages. According to Paul Ekman, author of Why Kids Lie: How Parents Can Encourage Truthfulness, there are five stages.

By this age and stage, children are honest or lie:

  1. By age 4, to get their way, get rewards, and avoid punishment.
  2. By age 5 or 6, to please adults.
  3. Around ages 6-8, based on what’s in it for them.
  4. Around ages 8-12, so others will think well of them.
  5. Children ages 12 are honest to be good citizens or lie out of habit.

Two age periods are especially important: One is around age three or four when children can tell a deliberate lie. Adolescence is the other because teens can understand that lying destroys trust. Not everyone reaches the last stage, and many adults never go beyond Stage 3!

Preventing Lies

Preventing lies is a continual process of catching and creating “teachable moments.”

  • Teach truthfulness repetitively, not only after a lie.
  • Teach the value of truthfulness by pointing out the benefits.
  • Handle mistakes calmly.
  • Question children in ways that encourage them to be truthful, rather than trying to trap them in a lie.
  • Reassure children that you won’t be as angry if they tell the truth.
  • Avoid punishing children, which imposes suffering. Help them learn from the situation in a way that feels safe and supportive.
  • Acknowledge the difficulty and courage it takes to tell the truth.

Are We Really Good Role Models?

It’s hard to preach honesty to children when there is misinformation all around them, dishonesty is publicly accepted if it serves a purpose, and there are many dishonest role models in visible places. Children are sponges who soak up these unspoken lessons and notice hypocrisy, so we want to practice what we preach.

Research shows that children who lie most often have parents who lie frequently. So, we need to tell the truth even when it’s inconvenient or makes us “look bad.” This includes when we get incorrect change, get stopped for speeding, or can get discounts based on a child’s age.

Also, avoid using lies to get children to behave, like saying you’ll leave them in a store if they don’t come right away. Scaring children might be a quick fix but it breeds insecurity and could be traumatizing.

Find ways to be honest and tactful. Avoid discussing adult issues with children that could be upsetting, traumatizing or too much information. You can tell parts of the truth they can developmentally understand and handle and tell them more later. You aren’t lying because your intent is to protect the child and you would tell them more if they were older.

Truth Or Consequences?

Even if you teach your children to be truthful and are a good role model, it is likely that a child will lie at some point. How you respond to children lying can help determine whether they continue lying or come clean permanently.

There is not one perfect response to every lie. Instead, Use this four-step response:

  1. Identify the goal of the lie by asking yourself, “What purpose does this lie serve?”  This is a multiple-choice question. The possible answers will be one of Rudolf Dreikurs’ “Four Goals of Misbehavior”:
    • For Attention, such as telling a whopper of a story or to get a laugh.
    • For Power, to see if they can dupe others or to get something forbidden.
    • For Revenge, because they feel they were lied to.
    • Because they’ve Given Up on telling the truth; no one believes them anyway.
  2. Avoid reactions that give the goal a payoff or escalate the situation.
  3. Show children how to meet their goal without lying.
  4. Have two separate disciplines: one for the actual offense and one for lying. The discipline for lying should relate to the breakdown in trust. Children need to understand that if they lie, they are in “double trouble.”

When you understand what lying is and why children might lie, you can prevent and respond to children lying in ways that encourage truthfulness. By teaching truthfulness not only in words, but by your deeds, you can raise children who are honest, moral, truthful, tactful and trustworthy.


If you want more insights, specific information and practical tools to help you answer the question “Why do Children Lie,” you can get any of the following resources:


Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is President of Parent’s Toolshop® Consulting, where she oversees an international network of Toolshop® trainers. For 30+ years, Jody has trained tens thousands of parents and family professionals worldwide through her dynamic workshops and interviews with the media worldwide, including Parents and Working Mother magazines, and serving as the Co-Producer and Parenting Expert for the Emmy-nominated Ident-a-Kid television series. She is the author of the award-winning book, The Parent’s Toolshop® and countless multimedia resources that support and educate parents from diverse backgrounds and needs, and other adults who live or work with children. You can find them at her award-winning website,

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