Age-by-Age Guide to Lying

Yes, kids lie. (But so do adults.) The good news: If parents take a strong lead on a no-lying policy, most children will learn to walk the straight and narrow.
child lying

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As the primary role models in children's lives, parents play a vital part in showcasing honesty. They also have the most influence when it comes to instilling a deep-rooted commitment to telling the truth. As children mature and acquire a more sophisticated understanding of social etiquette, parents must help children differentiate between little white lies told to spare people's feelings and downright dishonesty. "All children lie. Teaching children about the importance of honesty early and teaching them how to resolve situations so they don't need to rely on lying will ensure they will be honest -- most of the time," says Victoria Talwar, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology at McGill University in Montreal. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, children and adults lie for similar reasons: to get out of trouble, for personal gain, to impress or protect someone, or to be polite. At a young age, kids will experiment with the truth and they continue to do so through all the developmental stages, with varying degrees of sophistication and elaboration. For maximum influence at each developmental stage, address the subject of lying in an age-appropriate way. Learn how to respond appropriately to kids of different ages when they're caught telling a lie.

Toddlers and Preschoolers (Ages 2 to 4)

Because toddlers' language skills are just emerging, they do not have a clear idea yet of where truth begins and ends. At this age, toddlers also have a fairly shaky grasp on the difference between reality, daydream, wishes, fantasies, and fears, says Elizabeth Berger, a Parents advisor, child psychiatrist, and author of Raising Kids with Character. "Strong emotions can make a 2- or 3-year-old insist, 'He ate my cookie!' when a baby brother clearly did not do anything of the kind," Berger says. Remember that toddlers are trying to exhibit their independence and they can make a power struggle out of any disagreement. So try a mild, diplomatic response that interjects doubt, such as, "Really? Then those must not be crumbs I see on your chin." Saying this helps avoid a battle of the wills. Toddlers are too young to be punished for lying, but parents can subtly begin to encourage truthfulness. Consider reading a lighthearted book such as Nicola Killen's Not Me to illustrate the issue of truthfulness.

Around age 4, as children become more verbal, they can tell obvious whoppers and respond "No" when you ask simple questions like, "Did you pinch your sister?" Use every opportunity to explain what a lie is and why it is bad. Introduce the subject (ideally, soon after your child tells the lie so the memory will still be fresh). Start with, "Let's talk about lying and why it's not okay." "It may not be a long conversation, but give them the message that honesty is important," Dr. Talwar says. In response to a lie, be firm and serious, and say, "That sounds like you're not telling the truth" or "Are you absolutely sure that's what happened?" Make it clear that you are not taken in by the lies, but move on gracefully after listening to and gently correcting your child. Avoid confronting the child further or digging for the truth unless the situation is serious and demands more attention.

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