Have you ever walked into your kitchen to find your toddler looking like this?
And when you asked them where all the cookies had gone, they said something like this?
Lying is a skill we learn very early on as humans. However, it’s not the end of the world when your toddler starts fibbing. In fact, you shouldn’t even be overly concerned. There are all sorts of reasons kids don’t tell the truth, and none of them are as nefarious as parents might think.
Reasons Why Kids Lie
So why would kids tell a lie? Here are just a few reasons.
- They want to stay “good.” Your child wants you to be happy with them. So if they’ve done something they think you’ll be unhappy about, they may try to rewrite history by declaring it never happened. Which leads to our next point …
- Kids are bad at telling the difference between reality and fantasy. Make-believe is very real to kids under the age of 5. The shows they watch are real, the stories you tell them are real, and (unfortunately) the stories they tell themselves are real. They aren’t being conniving when they say, “I didn’t do it.” They thought it, therefore it happened.
- Little kids have legitimately terrible memories. When you ask them, “Who started this fight?” and they point at their sibling, they may have honestly forgotten that they threw the first punch.
- They’re looking for attention. And again, that’s usually a lot less scandalous than it sounds. They’re more often than not trying to make sure that the adult in the room hasn’t forgotten them, overlooked them, or is ignoring their problem. So saying they feel sick (when they’re actually fine) or are scared (when they’re not) is their attempt to use the words and concepts they have to say to you, “Please look at me.”
- Lying as a moral choice is WAY beyond them. As adults, we have to remember that values and morality are learned concepts. They certainly do NOT come naturally. In short, your kids are not trying to deceive you. We promise.
How To Handle & Prevent Lying
Despite all of the innocent reasons that kids lie, it’s still not great, right? Here are some things you can do when you’re kiddo tells a big one.
- Don’t overreact. Again, morality is a concept so outside of a toddler’s understanding that it’s impossible to hold them to it. Never call them a liar. If you get angry, they’ll go on the defensive and continue to lie to avoid blame. Keep your reactions at an appropriate level — this is not a big deal.
- Avoid putting them in positions where they feel like they need to lie. Don’t ask the question, “Who drew with permanent marker all over the wall?” We all know who did it. Asking the question sets your kid up to fail, so just skip that question altogether and get to the heart of the issue.
- Give them the words they’re looking for. For example, when they claim to be sick when they’re obviously not, ask them, “Do you really feel sick or do you just need dad to be close? Either answer is completely okay!” Or if they say a monster is the one who ate all the cookies, respond with, “Well, the monster didn’t need to sneak the cookies. They just needed to ask, and I would have gotten them one. Do you want a cookie?”
- With toddlers, respond to lies with facts instead of punishment. Point out their dirty hands after you asked them to wash up or their messy room when they said they already picked up their toys. When you simply lay out the evidence, it helps your kid start understanding right from wrong.
- With older kids, talk about the importance of telling the truth. By the age of 4 or 5, kids start to have a basic understanding of right and wrong. It’s still tenuous, so don’t hold them to an adult standard. Instead, continue to give them the words they need to be honest about the situations they find themselves in. Which leads to …
- Honor honesty. Make sure your kids know that you as the parent always prefer the truth to a lie. Explain that, if they’ve done something wrong, it’s always better to be honest and the punishment will always be less severe (or none at all!) when they tell the truth.
- Trust your child. This may feel difficult to do at times, but lean into it. Whether you’re an adult or a child, everyone is more likely to be honest when they feel trusted. Tell your child you trust them to tell the truth and be honest. And believe them when they tell you something unless you’re proven wrong. You may be amazed at how willing they are to tell the truth when they feel safe and believed.
Books About Honesty
Children’s literature is full of books on why honesty is important. Here are just a few.
- “Betty Bunny Didn’t Do It” by Michael B. Kaplan
- “The Whopper” by Rebecca Ashdown
- “Escape Goat” by Ann Patchett
- “The Pirates Are Coming” (a retelling of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”) by John Condon
- “I Am Honest” Mark Erroll
- “Being Honest” by Rebecca Pettiford
Just Keep Loving Them
When kids feel safe and believed, they’re more likely to open up and be honest with you (the parent). If you find your little one making up big stories, take the opportunity to talk about the importance of honesty and why telling lies can be harmful. As they grow, they’ll start to understand how detrimental lying is. But at this age, they still have a lot of developing to do before they can fully grasp the concept.