It is not unusual for children to sometimes tell lies or embellish the truth, particularly in the preschool and early primary years. However, lying is problematic if it occurs frequently, becomes a habit or is hurtful to the child or to others.
Typically, a child develops a sense of right and wrong by about nine or ten years of age.Queensland Government, Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services. https://www.communities.qld.gov.au/ If lying is a problem behaviour during the early to mid-primary years it may reflect cognitive and/or social immaturity.
A child who frequently tells lies is likely to lose the trust of their peers. This can lead to complex social problems. Lying can have an emotional impact on the child who lies, others who hear the lie, and those included in the lie. Lying can also lead to anxiety and poor self-concept.
Chronic lying may indicate an underlying issue that needs to be addressed, such as limited problem-solving or poor communication skills. It can also be a symptom of conditions such as Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD). Some of these children have trouble in controlling aspects of their thinking or behaviour. Lying or perceived lying, due to miscommunication or misunderstanding, can be an associated problem. Bernstein, J., ADHD and ‘Honest Lies’. (2010) Psychology Today, Posted February 21, 2010. … Continue reading Children who engage in frequent lying should, with parental consent, be referred to a psychologist. In older children, chronic lying can be associated with antisocial behaviour and delinquency.
Why do children lie?
It can be very useful to understand a child’s motivations for lying. Like adults, children lie for a variety of reasons, including the following:
Avoiding something undesirable or challenging
If children don’t want to deal with their emotions or confront a difficult situation, they may lie about their actions, skills, family, friends, possessions or their past. In some cases, telling lies can keep the child safe. Children may tell lies to avoid:
- getting into trouble or being punished
- difficult tasks or chores
- risky, dangerous or embarrassing situations
- sharing something private or secret
- admitting to actions they are ashamed of.
Sometimes, children lie to deceive a person who may wish to harm them or others.
Some children may exaggerate the truth or make up stories to gain approval or respect. Such lies are often motivated by feelings of insecurity or ‘neediness’ and may be an attempt to:
- keep teachers and others happy
- make or keep friends
- fit in with the peer group
- impress peers
- avoid feeling inadequate or embarrassed
- gain attention.
Young children often lie about things they wish for or desire. This is sometimes referred to as magical thinking. For example, children with absent fathers may tell others they spent time with their dad on the weekend when they did not. Children may:
- wish something were true — ‘I go to a party every weekend’
- be unable to separate their fantasy world and the real world.
By about eight years of age most children have some understanding of the difference between reality and fantasy.
Lying may become a habit if it avoids something unpleasant, or gains something desirable. This is particularly so if the lies have gone unnoticed. Such lying is:
- more common among children who have experienced physical, verbal or emotional intimidation from a parent or another person
- often used to gain an advantage over others by children who have observed older role models lie to gain advantage or to deceive others
- a self-defeating, short-term ‘solution’ for problems and/or unresolved issues.
Avoiding hurting the feelings of others
Our society can encourage children and adults to avoid telling the ‘blunt’ truth in situations where someone’s feelings may be hurt. Some people believe a well-intentioned untruth or blatant white lie can be for the benefit of others, by protecting feelings or fostering friendly relationships.
Telling white lies can be viewed as a social skill for adults, especially when uttered in the interests of tact and politeness. However, the telling of white lies is generally deemed inappropriate at school. Most children gradually learn to tell the truth even if it is very uncomfortable to do so.
Learning about truth and honesty
Understanding that telling the truth is part of a valued moral code in our society is a cognitively sophisticated process and requires the encouragement, guidance and support of parents and teachers. All children experiment with telling lies or embellishing the truth.
Frequent lying that persists past the second year of primary school, can become habituated and it can become difficult for a child to tell the truth. When dealing with children who lie frequently, teachers need to attempt to understand the reasons, be consistent and patient, and accept that change will take time. The child needs to know the teacher cares about them and values their positive attributes.
Children are most likely to learn values such as honesty when:
- it is modelled for them by parents and teachers
- positive, rather than negative, consequences of honesty are discussed and promoted
- they see that honesty is a valued and admirable character strength
- they are not exposed to adults lying
- they observe and learn that lying is not acceptable in their family, school and wider community
- fair consequences for untruthfulness are directly linked to remedying the situation and
- early intervention addresses emerging childhood conditions such as ADHD and ODD.
Traditionally western cultures have used morality and classic fairy tales about good and evil, honesty and deception to help children learn about the consequences of lying and the virtue of honesty. There is little evidence that such stories promote honesty in children.  Lee, K., Talwar, V., McCarthy, A., Ross, I., Evans, A., & Arruda, C. (2014). Can Classic Moral Stories Promote Honesty in Children? … Continue reading Rather, stories that focus on negative consequences of dishonesty, such as, The boy who cried wolf or Pinocchio, fail to promote honesty in children. In contrast, stories that promote positive consequences of honesty significantly increase truth telling by young children.  Lee, K., Talwar, V., McCarthy, A., Ross, I., Evans, A., & Arruda, C. (2014). Can Classic Moral Stories Promote Honesty in Children? … Continue reading
Conflicting stories – who is telling the truth?
One of the most vexatious behaviour management situations for teachers relates to getting to the bottom of a conflict between children, where none of the protagonists will admit to being at fault and it appears that one or more of the children involved are not telling the truth. All parties claim they are innocent, not involved or that they didn’t do it. It can be difficult for the teacher to know who is telling the truth.
It is prudent not to label children. Young children often don’t have the cognitive and linguistic skills to tell the complete story, to explain both sides of a story or to accurately provide the details of how an event occurred. Their statements may not be lies but incomplete or inaccurate recounts or misunderstandings. Nevertheless, by about eight years of age, children have some understanding about the difference between truth and fantasy. Queensland Government, Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services. https://www.communities.qld.gov.au/
The following section outlines specific strategies teachers can use to encourage truth telling.
Strategies to support the child who tells lies
- Avoid calling or labeling a child. ‘Liar’ and ‘lying’ are emotionally charged words and can reinforce the behaviour, leading the child to tell more lies. Instead, challenge the child in a positive way, for example, ‘Think carefully about what happened before the incident, and then what happened after. Tell me, step by step, from the beginning, so that you are honest with me’ or ‘Sometimes we leave bits out …’ rather than, ‘You’re lying. Tell me the truth.’
When talking to the child’s parents it is wise to use phrases and terms such as ‘still learning to tell the truth’, ‘not 100 per cent clear about what happened’, or ‘not being completely honest’, depending on the child’s age and the situation.
- Always tell the truth yourself. If you make a mistake or forget something, admit it rather than covering it up. Children are perceptive and can often tell if you are lying. Modelling honesty is an important way to teach children about honest, and trusting relationships. It can be helpful to apologise if necessary, and talk about how you will fix your mistake, ‘I’m sorry I know you were looking forward to it. I’ll bring it tomorrow’.
- Understand the child’s motivation for telling a lie. Was it to avoid trouble, to make friends, to gain attention, or because they wish the lie were true? Once the motivation is established teachers are better placed to talk to the child about why they lied, what they could have done instead, reinforce honesty as a worthy moral character and/or set appropriate
- This article is an excerpt of the Working with children who tell lies ebooklet (revised) for more strategies, scroll down…
Copyright © Murray Evely and Zoe Ganim 2017
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This article is an excerpt from the ebooklet Tells lies (revised).
Download the complete ebooklet for full access to strategies and resources, including:
- General strategies
- When talking to the child about the lie
- When there is no evidence and there are two different stories
- If the child has a disability or additional needs
- Whole school strategies
- Lesson plans and activities