Friday April 30th is Honesty Day. This day was created in the early 1990s as a way to encourage people to speak the truth. Benjamin Franklin said it best…honesty is the best policy. Afterall, it can help strengthen relationships and make them more productive.

So then, why do we lie? I mean, let’s face it…we all do it. Whether it’s a little fib, a tiny white lie or a huge, big fat lie…at some point in time we have all told one. Why is that? When did we learn to do this? And how can we guide our children to be honest and tell the truth?

Do all kids lie?

Typically, yes. Starting around age 3, a child will start to lie. It’s pretty common at this age as they are beginning to develop more mature cognitive and social skills. Yet even as these skills are maturing remember that a child this young doesn’t necessarily think before acting, they don’t stop to consider a consequence prior to giving you a response to a question. They just say what they want, when they want.

Around this age they do begin to realize that you don’t always know what they’ve done. They have enough object permanence to know that even though you aren’t in the room with them you are still there. But they also think that if you’re not with them, then you probably don’t know what they’ve been doing.

Right? All they know is that they did something and you weren’t there to witness it, so do you really know what happened? Typically their cognitive skills aren’t mature enough to realize the ‘evidence’ to their actions is pretty obvious (think chocolate all over their face and hands).

Who stole the cookie?

Let’s think about that one time when you were sitting in the living room and suddenly your toddler enters the room with chocolate all over their face. You ask, “did you eat that Oreo that was on the table?”. Their answer: “Nope”. And there you have it…your child has officially lied to you.

I’m here to tell you today…your child, if they haven’t already, will at some point lie to you. Starting as young as 3-4 years old. It will happen.

Why do kids lie?

As adults, we know there are many reasons to lie. I want you to throw all of those presuppositions about why we lie out the window. Because kids don’t lie for the same reason that adults do. Kids don’t have the ability to think abstractly. To them, things are black or white…there is no gray. So why do young children lie?

  • To deny a behavior or action: The younger the child, the more likely they are to lie to deny having done something. No, they didn’t eat that cookie (even though the evidence is all over their face) or yes, they did wash their hands (even though you can see their hands are still dry with dirt all over them).
  • To cover up misbehavior and avoid a consequence: As a child gets older, they begin to learn the difference between truth and a lie. They learn that their actions have consequences, and that their actions can affect others. So, from their point of view sometimes it’s easier to lie and say you didn’t do it than to admit to the negative behavior.
  • To boost their own self-esteem or make themselves sound better to others: Elementary school aged children may lie to their peers to gain respect from them. They may want their friends to be impressed by them or to see them as more talented than they truly are because they have low self-esteem. These types of lies may also be targeted to parents or caregivers to gain attention and love.
Ok, so how should parents react to the lie?

Let’s start with the younger ones…when your 3-year-old lies, try to respond with the truth. Don’t punish your child with the chocolate all over their face because they said they didn’t eat the cookie. Rather, take that opportunity to point out the chocolate on their face and the cookie missing from the table.

Make it simple. Make it concrete. Help your child learn the difference between right and wrong. The difference between the truth and a lie. Don’t make a huge deal about it, as most likely your child isn’t being spiteful. They are exploring and testing their limits.

This is the perfect opportunity to teach your child about choices and consequences to actions. I’m not saying to just excuse the behavior. Rather you can say “it’s not OK to lie. But here’s what you could have done instead.”

Lies from an older child.

As your child gets older, they understand that lying is wrong. But they still may do it because they are avoiding punishment or an uncomfortable situation. Again, try to understand the reason behind the lie.

Are they having a hard time with something? Do they not understand a problem? Are they uncomfortable in a situation? First try to understand. Then, try to help them develop the skills to look ahead to what may occur because of their lie. What would happen if they told the truth?

Encourage your child to tell the truth.

Once your child is old enough to understand the difference between the truth and a lie, encourage them tell the truth. Support them in this effort first by modeling honesty in your family. Let your child know that in your family you tell the truth.

Then maybe help them avoid situations where they may be tempted to lie. See if you can walk into a situation without asking “what did you do?” Don’t automatically accuse and place your child into a situation where they feel like they must lie. Maybe ask “looks like something happened here. What happened?”

Finally, commend your child for owning up to something. Yes, you can feel exacerbated and annoyed at what was done, but the important thing to remember is that your child chose to tell you the truth about it rather than lie to you. That’s a huge deal and a parenting plus!

Remember that your young child is continually learning the rules of socialization and expectations. Try to be the role model they need for telling the truth by admitting to your own faults when appropriate. Your children are looking to you to help guide them along this honesty journey. 😊