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As a parent, you’ve probably dealt with lying kids. But let’s face it—interacting with people of any age means dealing with fibs (and outright falsehoods). Lying isn’t desirable, but it’s common as children grow, language skills become more advanced, and social situations become more complex. Teaching children not to lie and disciplining them when they do are important goals for parents, but your approach to dealing with lying should differ by developmental age. Below are some age-by-age strategies that will help reinforce honesty and discourage lying:
Toddlers are just becoming comfortable with language and can’t understand truth, reality, or falsehood like we can. For them, what’s “real” may just be what they’re feeling or a daydream they’ve had. Imposing discipline on toddlers after a lie isn’t helpful, since they’re still struggling to process what’s real and filter out what’s not. Instead, try giving positive reinforcement for honesty and working with kids to examine their words and actions to show the differences between true and false.
Say you’ve got a toddler who insists that her sister ate all the cheese snacks, despite having been caught orange-handed. The culprit may belligerently insist that she didn’t eat the snack. She may even point to an obviously uninvolved party—whether dog, sister, or doll—to shift the blame. She might believe herself if she protests enough! Catching a child in the act is a great opportunity to model how adults determine truthfulness. Gently explain why you don’t believe your child so they can see how you think. “Hm, I wonder why I can see cheesy stuff on your fingers, if your sister ate them?” or “Your sister has been in the other room this whole time, so it couldn’t have been her” are good examples of this reasoning. And when young children admit to doing something wrong, make it clear that you’re very proud of them for telling the truth, even if you have to follow with light consequences (e.g. – taking away a favorite toy for a few minutes).
As kids get closer to school age, they’ll be able to understand the abstract concepts of lying and honesty a little better. These children will benefit from simple talks about the importance of telling the truth, supplemented by stories that illustrate the principle. A few are listed below:
Betty Bunny Didn’t Do It (PreK-K)
Eli’s Lie-O-Meter (PreK-2)
The Berenstain Bears and the Truth (PreK-2)
The Boy Who Cried Wolf (PreK-2)
As kids develop more linguistic tools to deal with the world, lying gets more sophisticated. At this age, bold-faced toddler denial turns into complicated lies, especially if the child is trying to duck out of responsibilities they’re facing in structured environments. Children are also more perceptive at this age, so they’ll probably pick up on the fibs that parents and teachers tell. If authority figures do a poor job of modeling truthful behavior, kids will be less likely to buy into lectures about the value of honesty.
Modeling truthful behavior and praising truthfulness are key, but adding disciplinary measures for lying is also crucial. Good discipline for honesty infractions begins with the need for a detailed apology. Urging children to clearly state what they’ve done wrong helps them work through the values being taught. Let’s say your child lies about having a school assignment so they don’t have to do it, and you find out they’ve received a zero. Having the child make a detailed apology to you for lying is a great first consequence. Then, it’s good to impose discipline to directly connect action to consequences. One option is to have them apologize to their teacher and request extra work to make up what was omitted. You can also have them spend extra time on the subject for a few days after school instead of watching a favorite show.
This is an age when children first encounter the idea of keeping quiet or not telling the “whole truth.” While “honesty is the best policy” isn’t a bad guideline, it’s possible for kids to be “too honest.” It’s important to point out that honesty doesn’t mean saying everything you think. Below you’ll find a few books that help reinforce honesty (and discretion) for children in this age group:
Ruthie and the (Not So) Teeny Tiny Lie (K-2)
The Boy Who Cried Ninja (K-2)
Princess Kim and Too Much Truth (K-2)
Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big (2-5)
By this stage, children have a developed sense of right and wrong, which can prevent lying altogether or inspire guilt after the fact. Conversely, they are also more sensitive to the potential consequences of lying, which can result in some real whoppers. These kids are at a stage when you don’t have to be as literal about the connection between action and consequence after a lie. Disciplinary measures should simply be consistent with your standard disciplinary strategy. Just be sure to make time for a frank talk about why the behavior was unacceptable. Taking away privileges is especially successful with this independent bunch.
As relationships and social situations become more complex, kids may encounter situations where “gray areas” appear—including the “white lie.” At this stage, children can handle open discussions with parents about honesty, touching on complexities like a conflict between wanting to stay truthful and sparing feelings. Talking through scenarios that arise in social situations helps children understand how truthfulness, sensitivity, and manners fit into the same framework.
For example, if your child’s friend asks for an opinion on a new shirt, the appropriate response isn’t something negative, even if that’s how they feel. People aren’t usually asking for a truthful opinion when they draw attention to themselves—they just want some positive affirmation. Give your child a toolkit for responding to these situations by offering responses like, “That’s a great color! It goes with your shoes.” (even if they hate the style of the shirt). Teaching kids to express themselves with kindness and honesty will be a huge help as they get older. These creative problem-solving exercises also keep you involved in your child’s understanding of the “right thing,” and reinforce that they should come to you for help navigating morally ambiguous situations. While children this age can begin reading literature with a variety of themes, see books below that specifically touch on lying:
The Stories Julian Tells (grades 3-5)
Liar, Liar (grades 6-8)