The honest truth is that kids lie. They cheat and steal, too.
From toddler to teens, these not-so-charming behaviors range from fudging to outright lying, from “borrowing” a friend’s toy to stealing others’ possessions, from copying a friend’s homework to cheating on a test.
Kids begin learning to lie as young as 3 – but it shouldn’t be a cause for alarm. It’s actually a developmental milestone when a child learns to fib. By age 4, studies suggest kids fib once every 2 hours and by age 6, once every 90 minutes!
While they represent a normal pattern in child development, that doesn’t mean these behaviors should be ignored. When parents come to us for advice, we encourage them to address the situation early, but in a positive – not punitive – manner.
Helping children understand the importance of honesty – and how lying, cheating or stealing can damage your credibility and friendships – is not a lesson that can be learned in one day, one month or one year – it has to sink in gradually, with ongoing parental guidance, as a child matures and faces ethical questions and dilemmas.
Here are a handful of strategies we recommend to help your child develop a better understanding of truthfulness:
Establish a House Rule
Make sure that your children understand your expectations and values about honesty and telling the truth, and always set a good example yourself. Kids can’t distinguish “little white lies” from other lies (so no fudging a younger sibling’s age to get cheaper admission ticket).
Let your children learn that good things happen when he or she tells the truth. Let them experience how much better they feel about themselves when others trust them.
Look Beyond the Lie
There are three main reasons kids lie: fantasy, bragging or to prevent a negative consequence. Preschoolers often make claims they wish could be true. Simply acknowledging their desire is often enough to help them differentiate between truth and wishful thinking. If a child is bragging, it may be that he or she has low self-esteem or wants attention. They may benefit from social activities that help boost self-esteem.
When kids lie to get out of trouble (and they all will at one point or another), take heart. They are trying to protect themselves from parental disappointment and disapproval, which demonstrates their conscience at work. Overreacting and becoming extremely negative may push them to lie again to protect themselves, so address the situation in a calm, straight-forward manner.
Discuss Natural Consequences
Talk to your child about the natural consequences of lying, cheating or stealing – that you and others won’t be able to believe what they say, even when they are being truthful. Lack of trust can result in fewer privileges and friendships. And with older kids, don’t underestimate the power of old-fashioned guilt – a heartfelt ‘I’m so disappointed’ can be far more effective than arguing.
Help Your Child Re-Establish Trust
If your child has a habit of lying, develop a plan to help him re-establish trust. Consider a family behavior contract that expands privileges based on your child’s honesty. If your child or teen develops a pattern of lying that is serious and repetitive, seek professional help. Evaluation by a child/adolescent psychiatrist or mental health therapist can help you and your child understand issues that may be triggering the behavior and suggest ways to work through them.
For more tips about helping children learn to tell the truth, check out the American Academy of Pediatrics’ article for parents, When Kids Lie.