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Why Do Children Lie?

April 30 is National Honesty Day which is fitting since the month started with hoaxes and practical jokes that come with April Fools’ Day. This juxtaposition got me thinking about how children can sometimes be charmingly honest on the one hand and lie to our faces on the other.

There was the time a young student at my school was throwing a football up and down to himself in a corner of the yard. I went over and asked to have a catch. We had been throwing the ball back and forth for a while when he declared, “You’re really good at football.” I accepted the compliment, knowing that was a statement I would never hear again.

I also remember the time a student asked me why I always wore the same clothes to school all the time. It’s so funny what kids notice. I went to the mall that very week.

Some people might have reprimanded the latter child for being rude, but that’s the wrong conclusion. Young children are learning about the world and trying to make sense of everything they experience. My take on this was that this child was making an observation that seemed different from what was, up to then, the way people wore clothes to school. Honest observations, such as these, are gifts that children give us. This honesty gives us clues into the mind of a child of the type we have long forgotten. It also makes us aware of things we no longer notice in the rush of daily life. It’s a stop and smell the roses opportunity.

What you can do: Enjoy the spontaneity of children. Relish the openness of their observations and their questions. Soon they will learn to filter what they say and we will lose some of that charm.

On the flip side, kids lie. There’s the time my own kid, with chocolate all over his face, proclaimed he did not eat all the Halloween candy.

How can kids do that? Don’t they know that we know they are lying?

Here are some reasons why kids lie:

  • Kids are often spontaneous or impulsive. They do something without thinking and only later learn it was wrong. Because there was no intention to do wrong, kids say they didn’t do it, because in their minds, it wasn’t wrong when they did it.

  • Kids are imaginative. They can actually convince themselves they didn’t do anything wrong even though they did.

  • Imaginative kids create stories in their heads that feel real and will be convinced something happened that didn’t.

  • Kids do not want to disappoint you. They say they didn’t do something wrong when they did, because they want to prevent you from being disappointed or angry.

  • Kids do not want to be punished. Avoiding punishment or negative consequences is the goal.

  • They see that other people lie and so they do it too.

What adults can do to reduce lying:

  • Most important: If you know your child did something wrong or is making up a story don’t set them up. If you know your child ate all the Halloween candy, don’t say, “Did you eat the candy?” This is almost a guarantee that the kid will lie. Say,” I know you ate the candy and it is not OK.” Then you deal with it.

Why pretend you don’t know about the situation when you do?

It’s dishonest and you will be met with dishonesty.

  • Give the benefit of the doubt. If the origin of the lie came from impulsiveness or from their imagination, go slow. Speak slowly and teach. Explain how you see the situation and why it is wrong. Then discuss what the child should do next time a similar situation comes up.

  • Give an impulsive child time to think before answering. Pushing for a quick response to the question, “Did you do that?!” will get you an automatic “No” as an answer.

  • Stay calm. The more you show disappointment or anger, the more often your child will lie to avoid it in the future.

  • Go easy on the punishment. Reward honesty and you will get it more often.

  • Model honesty. We often lie to our children to avoid a meltdown, argument, or disappointment just like they do. Don’t do it. Kids are smart. You will eventually get caught. I recently heard parents tell their young child that the “Star Wars” movie was broken. After they watched some of it together, the parents decided it was too violent for their child’s age. So instead of dealing with it honestly, they said the movie was broken. I am glad I won’t be around to see a meltdown 10X as intense once that child figures out the truth.

I think there is a lot we adults can learn from children’s charming and unfiltered honesty. Use it as an antidote for the stress of the day. Go sit down with kids and ask their opinion about the world. You get unique perspectives and a renewed awareness of what is all around you.

Happy National Honesty Day.

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