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Age-by-Age Guide to Lying

child lying

Onoky Photography/ Veer

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.

School-Age and Big Kids (Ages 5 to 8)

Between the ages of 5 and 8, children will tell more lies to test what they can get away with, especially lies related to school -- classes, homework, teachers, and friends. Maintaining the lies may still be difficult, even though they are becoming better at concealing them. "The regulations and responsibilities of this age are often too much for children," Berger says. "As a result, children will often lie to appease the forces that seem to demand more performance than they can muster." But, thankfully, most lies ("We didn't get any reading homework today") are relatively easy to detect. Talk openly to your children and continue reading stories together, such as Be Honest and Tell the Truth by Cheri J. Meiners. Also, notice when a child is being honest and provide praise and positive feedback.

Most important, because school-age children are keen observers, continue to be good role models. Be careful about what reflexive lies you may be used to saying -- even something as small as "Tell them I'm not at home" when you are -- can send a very mixed message to a school-age child. "No matter how much you talk about the importance of honesty, you undermine the message if children see you being dishonest," Dr. Talwar says. For trickier situations, as when your child must offer thanks for a gift that she doesn't like, help her focus on the positive aspects of the gift. Explain to her, "I know you don't love your new sweater and it makes your neck itchy, but think about all the hours Grandma put into knitting it. That's the really special part about her gift and that's something you can honestly thank her for."

Tweens (Ages 9 to 12)

Most children this age are well on their way to establishing a hardworking, trustworthy, and conscientious identity. But they are also becoming more adept at maintaining lies and more sensitive to the repercussions of their actions, and they may have strong feelings of guilt after lying. Forthright and longer conversations about honesty are definitely necessary, as there will be rare "little white lie" moments when some dishonesty is acceptable in order to be polite or to spare another person's feelings. When situations like this arise, be straightforward with your child to avoid sending mixed messages. Start a conversation with, "You know how always telling your parents the truth is very important, right? Well, there are also times when it's important to be polite and not hurt another person's feelings. If we're visiting friends and they serve a lunch you don't like, it's not polite to make a big scene and refuse to eat. You should eat the food and say 'Thank you.' You're being a thoughtful guest who will get invited over to play again next time!"

Good role models are still crucial for your kids, so consider enlisting close family members or caring neighbors to guide your children through challenging social interactions. It's going to get harder before it gets easier, but there is a silver lining. "Children who have an established relationship with their parents, where they feel comfortable talking and disclosing information, are more likely to tell the truth," Dr. Talwar says. "But also realize that your children are not always going to tell you the truth. Taking a moment to think about why they are lying should help you respond to their lies appropriately."

Copyright © 2013 Meredith Corporation.