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Lying in Early Childhood

Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 11th 2016

In order for children to lie, they have to first know and understand that what they are saying is false. Young children do not have the capability to tell the difference between real and make-believe until age 3 or 4 years; therefore, children aren't quite capable of lying until they reach that age.

lie Children who have developed the ability to lie may do so for a variety of reasons:

Some very young children do not realize that they're lying. They tell imaginary lies which are a mixture of make-believe and reality. Such lies combine children's rich creative playful side and their everyday lives. As children continue to develop and grow, these intricate tall-tales will pass away.

Next, young children lie to test adults or peers and see how they will react. This form of lying might be considered a social experiment. If kids get attention or feel rewarded, they will continue to lie throughout childhood (and perhaps, adulthood). Other times, children exaggerate or brag to make themselves sound better or more important. They might fib to their friends about what newest video games or toys they have, or they might inflate the number of jumping jacks they completed in a contest. Normally, kids brag in order to obtain adoration and positive feedback from people who are important to them: friends, family, or teachers. It helps boost their fragile self-esteem to be the center of attention.

The most serious type of lying occurs when children lie to avoid punishment. Most young children will attempt to lie if they realize they've made a mistake or done something wrong and think lying will save them from undesirable consequences. If this type of lying isn't noticed and actively discouraged, children will continue to use it through childhood and only get better at it.

The best way for parents and caregivers to discourage lying is to firmly, calmly, and patiently talk to their preschoolers about it. First, it's important to make sure that children understand that their story wasn't true and aren't merely confusing reality and fantasy. Explaining to young children why it's not acceptable to lie and how it can be hurtful is the best way to redirect the behavior. Stories such as the "Boy Who Cried Wolf" can be good ways to teach the dangers of lying to young children.

As with any form of discipline, it's very important that parents reiterate that they love their children no matter what, even while they are uncovering and correcting children's lies. Some children may lie because they're trying to gain their parents' approval, while others may lie to prevent losing their good standing with their parents. As a result, ridicule or shame should not be used to combat preschool-aged lying; it may only promote more lying.

Research suggests that giving children consequences or punishing children for lying is not a very effective means of discouraging lying at this pre-operational developmental stage. However, if parents feel that they must give consequences, those consequences should be age-appropriate and not too severe. For example, if four-year-old Suzy lied about accidentally scribbling on the floor, an appropriate consequence might be that Suzy needs to help Mom scrub the stain out. Severe punishment of childhood lying may only increase lying behavior as kids will generally try to avoid severe punishments.

Finally, as is the case with other discipline techniques, parents need to practice what they teach. If small children observe their parents telling "white lies" or huge false tales to other children or adults, they may become confused as to when they should or should not lie themselves. Secondly, if they see adults who are successful as a result of lying, they may learn that lying is a good thing, despite any consequences that parents may place on them.


Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Lying 10 year old - mike - May 16th 2009

My 10 year old has been lying since age 5, and now considers himself good enough at it that he will only tell the truth when faced with corporal punishment, and even then waits until I am in the middle of my first or second swing.  We have tried rewarding for the truth absolution for original wrongdoing if truth is told, restricting time, toys, tv, and he hasn't even looked at his gameboy in years.  corporal punishment is the only working disciplinary tool that I have.  I have told him that I love him no matter what and that all I want is for him to grow up to be a good person.  I have told him how much it hurts me when he lies and that he is teaching his younger siblings to lie.  He does not show any emotion or regret on the subject until HE hurts.  He will lie about things even after I tell him that I know the truth and just want him to tell me.  I am at a loss for what to do.  I have included my email.  I am in Jacksonville, FL and cannot afford help, but am desperate for it.  someone please help me.

Editor's Note: You may want to read this section of our Childhood Mental Disorders and Illnesses topic center on the diagnosis and treatment of Conduct Disorder.  

The Most Dangerous Lies - Zack - Dec 5th 2008

Children should be rewarded for lying.  This may seem strange, but here me out...

1.) Parents lie to their children on a nearly constant basis.  Most children believe that a single man can deliver gifts to 8 billion people in a single night.  Most children believe that storks are a vital part of human reproduction.  If you are a parent, ask yourself, "Do I lie to my child more than my child lies to me?"

 2.) Lying is an essential part of modern life.  A politician cannot hope to get elected without a mountain of lies.  Considering that the president is always one of the biggest liars in the country, it should be seen as a possitive american moral trait to lie more than you tell the truth.

 3.) Children should be punished for lying poorly.  Lying well is an important skill.  Most occupations will require a worker to lie from time to time as part of company policy.  Most relationships would be torn apart if not for lies.  Being caught in a lie may be worse than telling the truth, so teach your kids to lie well.

 In conclusion, they are your children, and you can raise them however you like...but if you feed them lies, expect ignorance and distrust.

lying pre schooler - - Nov 21st 2008

Hi there, I am a pre school teacher and have been for the past 11 years, but today I was shocked at how one of my students lyied about me saying that I had asked him and another friend not to tslk or play with Joe.  It was shocking because he lied staight to my face and said "well you really did Ms M....." . When the other child was asked if I had said it, he said it was not true. I didnt talk about the boy named joe or even said anything that was remotly close to what this child said. I am literally shocked at this event. Now I joined the school 3 months ago and the director and other teachers have told me about this child and about his lying, I took there word into consideration and moved along. But I really didnt think his lying was this deep. He has put other children and teachers into trouble too. Please let me know an appropriate way of handling situations like this and what I could tell the parent. Thank you

awaiting answere

Ms M

Teacher Help - - Apr 29th 2008
Perhaps the teacher could ask the girl if in fact someone else has called her ugly? Maybe the child is redirecting a comment she heard someone else say to her. Or, the parent of this child could have said in the recent past that a certain behavior of hers is "ugly." If the teacher had to reprimand her for that same behavior then the girl may be applying that same "ugly" connotation to this situation.

lying about other people - Rosa - Mar 19th 2008

I am a school social worker and I work with preschool teachers. A teacher is having a difficult time with one of her students lying. According to the teacher, the child starts crying for no apparent reason and when the teacher asks her what's wrong the child replies to the teacher "You called me ugly, you don't like me, etc". The teacher is concerned that someone may believe the child. She has talked to the child about this but it has not helped. I have no strategies/interventions to give this teacher. What can I do to help the teacher as well as the child. Thank you for your help.

Clarification of passage requested - Karl Salisbury - Mar 4th 2008

Can you please elaborate/clarify the statement "Severe punishment of childhood lying may only increase lying behavior as kids will generally try to avoid severe punishments." in the second to last paragraph? Are you saying that some children will continue to lie despite the punishment because of the attention received. How can I determine if I have an attention-needy child?

Editor's Note: Angela Oswalt, MSW and Natalie Reiss, Ph.D. had this to say in response to your request for clarification:

"It's rare that a child will continue to lie in order to get attention in the form of discipline; it's much more likely that they will continue to lie to avoid the unpleasant attention of discipline.  If children receive a severe punishment, such as a spanking or a long-term loss of privileges in reaction to lying, many will continue to lie in the future in order to avoid getting the unpleasant punishment again. 

Children in this developmental stage are working from a much different moral perspective than adults.  Typically, they are not trying to manipulate others in order to get what they want.  Rather, they are y trying to avoid negative experiences and experience pleasurable feedback.  That's how they determine "right" from "wrong."  Children will lie repeatedly if they think lying might help them avoid getting spanked again, even if the reason they were spanked in the beginning was for lying.

It's important to look at what type of lie the children are using (see article) to determine what children are trying to achieve through lying.  In this developmental stage when children are just forming their moral understanding, it's very important for caregivers to use situations like these to teach children what their behavior means, how it affects/hurts others, and what is the acceptable/expected behavior."

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