That’s because lying is a normal part of child development, particularly as kids reach preschool age.
“Preschoolers may have trouble discerning reality from fantasy, or may start making up stories to test reactions or see what they can get away with,” said pediatric psychologist Geoffrey Putt, director of family support services at Akron Children’s Hospital.
While some parents may feel hurt or betrayed when their child lies to them, children, especially young kids, don’t lie to be malicious or hurtful.
“By the time they reach elementary school, children know the difference between truth and fantasy, but may lie for other reasons,” said Dr. Putt.
Kids often lie to get their way, to avoid getting into trouble, or to gain attention or approval from friends. If children don’t get any benefits from telling the truth, they may lie instead.
“If a child tells the truth about how something got broken or why he didn’t come straight home after school, and then is punished severely for it, he will learn to lie to avoid punishment,” said Dr. Putt.
Society’s attitudes toward lying can also be confusing, such as when children learn that a “white lie” is acceptable if it’s done to spare another person’s feelings.
However, children should also learn that deliberately saying something that’s not true makes it harder to believe or trust them, even when they are telling the truth.
“For children, lying is a little like playing a slot machine. If a lie pays off, it’s likely the child will try again,” said Dr. Putt. “By rebalancing the equation and making it more advantageous for your child to tell the truth, you can show the benefits of being honest.”
To reward your child for telling the truth, you first need to know whether she’s lying. In some cases, it may be obvious, such as if her story doesn’t sound quite right or she smiles while telling it.
Other signs of lying may be more subtle such as:
- Looking away when answering
- Repeating the question
- Using the long form of words instead of contractions
- Putting a hand up to her face
- Talking in a higher voice
“Once you know the telltale signs that your child is lying, don’t give this information away,” said Dr. Putt. “Instead, use it to address the problem before it escalates.”
To help put an end to lying, Dr. Putt recommends these 5 strategies:
- Provide appropriate consequences for lying and the problem that led to it. The punishment for lying may be more severe than for the misbehavior.
- Stay calm and don’t take it personally.
- If your child’s knee-jerk reaction is to lie, give him a moment to think about his response before he answers.
- Reward and praise honesty. Occasionally, this can mean no consequences for the wrongdoing as long as your child is being honest.
- Seek help if lying is increasing in severity or frequency or the lies are becoming more sophisticated and impacting your child’s relationships.