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Why Little Liars Aren't So Bad and What You Can Do About It

Photograph by Pexels

A mom of a four-year old didn’t know what to do. The little white lies started a few months prior but didn’t seem like a big deal. Most of the time her daughter lied to avoid owning up to things like shaking baby powder all over the bathroom. With a younger brother learning to walk and getting into everything, this girl saw an opportunity to shift blame and went with it. Her mom figured it was a jealousy issue and tried to focus on positive behaviors instead of digging in her heels about the lies.

Then the reports started coming home from school. As it turned out, her daughter had become quite the storyteller in the preschool classroom, and her captive audience loved to hear and repeat her stories. The stories became more and more grandiose each day. The phone call home was nice enough: “We love her stories and we encourage pretend play, but she does seem to believe some of the stories to be true.”

Her mom decided to take a harder line on the lies at home. First she redirected her daughter and talked to her daughter about honesty. Next, she tried retelling the stories and pointing out fact versus fiction. Finally, she secretly recorded her daughter making messes all over the house (that her daughter would later deny) to show evidence of the truth. All of these tactics yielded the same results: Her daughter stood by her lies. This caused some concern.

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As it turned out, jealousy did play a role in this little girl’s tour of lies, but she also genuinely enjoyed telling stories.

A study out of the University of Waterloo found that, on average, four-year-olds lie every two hours, and six-year-olds lie every hour.

The good news for parents of little liars is that research actually shows that kids who can weave a whopper of a tale actually have better working memories than those who always tell the truth. Researchers at the University of Sheffield tested 135 children and found that those who lied performed better on a trivia test than their honest peers. Bottom line: If your kids are good liars, they also have good memory skills.

If you’re still concerned about the possibility of raising a pathological liar, rest easy. Lying is actually quite common among young children. A study out of the University of Waterloo found that, on average, four-year-olds lie every two hours, and six-year-olds lie every hour. That’s a lot of tall tales!

It’s helpful to understand when kids begin to lie and why, as well as how to encourage honesty.

When do kids begin to lie?

Toddlers:

Chances are you’ve had a toddler deny a dirty diaper even though you can smell it from across the room! Toddlers don’t know that lying is wrong, but they do lie for self-serving reasons. Whether it’s an effort to avoid a diaper change or an attempt to skip a nap, even toddlers tell stories when the going gets tough.

Ages 4-6:

By this time kids understand the concept of lying and know that it’s wrong, but they do it anyway. More often than not, they lie to please adults or avoid getting in trouble for some reason (like the baby powder incident.) They can understand how others feel, and might also lie to protect feelings.

Kids in this age group tend to be caught between fantasy and reality a lot of the time, and sometimes the lines between storytelling and lying can be blurry. They also tend to engage in wishful and magical thinking, which can mimic lying.

Ages 7-9:

Kids in this age group are capable of deliberately deceiving others. They can also craft a lie and stick to it. Many are able to remain perfectly calm and poised while lying right to the eyes of a parent!

By this time kids understand the concept of lying to protect others (they might lie to protect a friend) and they lie to avoid consequences for poor choices.

Prosocial lies (white lies that benefit others) are actually a sign of loyalty in friendship and fear of disappointing parents, teachers, or other influential adults can drive lying behavior during this time of development.

The truth is that most kids experiment with lying at some point. The question is, how do we handle it?

Talk about it.

Punishment for lying tends to backfire. In fact, the more you punish kids for lying, the better liars they become.

Instead of handing out consequences or getting into a power struggle over the lie, open the lines of communication. Talk about why people lie sometimes and what the potential benefits and natural consequences might be.

Shaming children for lying only increases the urge to lie to avoid upsetting or disappointing parents. Talking about honesty and communicating that you will be pleased when your child tells the truth helps.

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Model honesty.

Ever catch yourself making up a story to, say, get out of a commitment on a really cold day when you would rather stay home and cozy up as a family? Been there. Adults tell prosocial lies just as kids do, but we have to be careful about the message that sends our kids.

Model honesty in your home. Hearing parents lie teaches kids that it’s okay to lie to others. If we want kids to be honest, we have to be honest.

Avoid labels.

It’s frustrating when you catch your child in a lie but your child refuses to take responsibility. Resist the urge to call your child a “liar.” This only increases feelings of shame and guilt.

Acknowledge what you know to be the truth and help your child find a way to right the wrong. Childhood is full of obstacles. When parents provide guidance and unconditional support, kids learn to cope with the ups and downs without resorting to dishonesty.

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