Nurture Shock: Chapter 4 – Why Kids Lie

Well, we all know that kids lie.  When they are toddlers, the belief is that they don’t know the difference between the truth and a lie because of an overactive imagination.  As a parent, it is usually easy to spot these early lies because of inconsistencies and the child’s inability to make up realistic lies on the spot.  As the child gets better at it, the research shows that both parents and teachers who know the child well are both equally as good as distinguishing the lies as they are at guessing. Personally, I think that’s kind of scary.

Most parents think they know their children well enough to tell when they are lying.  Most parents also think that their children rarely lie.  And much of the current literature advises parents that lying is just a phase and that most children generally “grow out of it”.  Unfortunately, the research shows otherwise.  It’s not exactly inspiring, nor is it particularly comforting when you are a parent.  I think most parents will agree with me on this.

This is actually quite a complex topic.  I really recommend reading Nurture Shock to understand it better, but I will try to summarise the main points below.  What have we learned about children and lying?

1. Children learn to lie a lot earlier than we presume.

By the fourth birthday, almost all children will start experimenting with lying.  Children with older siblings will begin even earlier.

Parents generally fail to address early childhood lying thinking that it is harmless.  Parents make the false assumption that their children are too young to understand what lies are or that they are wrong.  But this is a misconception.  Most children start out believing that all lying is wrong.  As they grow up, they begin to learn that some lies are okay (e.g. white lies).

Parents believe that as the child grows older and learns the distinction between the truth and a lie, they will eventually stop lying.  Unfortunately, the converse is true – the better the understanding a child has between a lie and the truth, the more likely that child is to lie.

One of the biggest mistakes that parents make is to let a lie go.  The most common reason for lying is to cover up misbehaviours and to get out of trouble.  Parents who are aware of the lie usually correct the misbehaviour but not the lie used in an attempted cover-up.  So while the child gets punished for wrong-doing, the lie goes unpunished.  Ideally, both the lie and the misdemeanour must be addressed.

2. Lying is a developmental milestone.

The ability to recognise the truth, come up with a plausible reality and convince someone else that the lie is in fact the truth requires advanced cognitive development.  It was found that children who started lying at two or three and who could control their lies by four or five performed better in academic tests.  In other words, lying and intelligence is related.

Children initially begin lying to get out of trouble.  As they grow older, their reasons for lying become more complex.  Though they will still lie to get out of trouble, they also begin to lie as a coping mechanism.  Generally an increase in lying is a sign that something has changed in a child’s life that troubles him.  As they grow older and develop a sense of empathy, they may also lie to spare the feelings of their friends

3. How can parents manage lying?

Children are more likely to own up to a lie if they know they are not going to be punished for it.  Many children associate lying with punishment.  Ironically, that makes them lie even more – for self-protection.  For this reason, the story about “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is actually a poor fable for teaching children not to lie.  At the end of the story, the boy was punished for his lying – that teaches children that lies are punished.  To avoid further punishment, a child would rather maintain the lie than own up to it.

Conversely, the story about “George Washington and the Cherry Tree” in which little George confesses to his father that he chopped down the tree works better at promoting honesty.  This is because the story ends with George’s father praising George for telling the truth: “George, I’m glad that you cut down that cherry tree after all.  Hearing you tell the truth is better than if I had a thousand cherry trees.”

Another factor that must be taken into consideration is how the child perceives the parent’s reaction to the lie.  Most children want to make their parents happy.  If they believe that by admitting to the lie they will disappoint their parents, they are also more likely to maintain the lie than to own up to the truth.  Parents who are able to convince their children that they would be happier to hear the truth are more likely to have children who own up to the lie.

In other words, to encourage a child to tell the truth, you need to:

  • let them know they will not be punished for telling the truth.
  • let them know that it will make you happy if they told the truth.

4. Parental influence.

Another reason why children lie is because they learn it from us – the parents.  For instance, whenever they observe us lying, we are inadvertently teaching our children to lie.  Even white lies, like pretending to like a gift out of politeness communicates to a child that lying is okay.  Although such white lies might seem reasonable, a child eventually extrapolates the use of white lies to more serious instances with the belief that honesty creates conflict and that lying maintains harmony.  So they lie to keep everyone happy.

Another type of lie is the kind where the truth is withheld.  I’m sure we are all aware of the importance of not “ratting out a friend” at school.  This begins early when parents try to get children to learn to resolve problems on their own.  Children generally bring problems to a parent when they feel they have put up with as much as they can handle, yet when parents react in such a manner, they are inadvertently telling the child not to bring his problems to them.  Over time, this reaction extends to other more serious occurrences such as shoplifting, cutting classes, vandalism, etc.


Lying is inevitable and all children will go through this phase.  How we are able to stop our children from continuing to lie depends very much on the way we behave and respond to their lies.


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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