When Children Lie
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When Children Lie

When Children Lie

Why small children lie and what to do about it.

by

For young children, lying isn’t necessarily a moral issue. Developmentally they lack the capacity to comprehend the broader implications. This ability kicks in from about age six to eight. So why do children lie?

The world of the young child is fantastical, laced with reality. With heads filled with fairy tales, gumdrop trees, and blue cartoon heroes, their thoughts muddle between what could be, and what is. Young children lie for several reasons.

  1. To socialize and impress. Listen to these three 4-year-olds in the nether world between truth and fiction:

            David:              “A fly flew right into my mouth!”

Reva:                “I once ate a huge, hairy bug!”

            Jeremy:             “Last Summer this huge pelican came straight at my mouth!                                      And … hit me with his elbow!”

Welcome to pre-school “socializing.” Announcing they had a bowl of cereal isn’t nearly as interesting as weaving an exciting fantasy. (And, well, pelicans may have elbows.) 

  1. To express what they wish or hope for. By listening to the “lie” we can often hear what young children desire:

            Benjy:               “I got a blue Plasmacar for Hanukkah that lifts me up in
                                    the air!”

Ariel:                “The teacher said my finger painting was the best she ever             saw!”          

Jonah:               “I have this Monster Robot who will do everything I say, and he even talks ‘alien’!”

Clearly, Benjy dreams of taking off on a futuristic “magic carpet,” Ariel seeks admiration, while Jonah is on a youngster’s “power” quest. 

  1. In fear and self-defense: How often, when faced with a broken toy, a small accident, a spill, have we heard our little “offender” counter with:

“I don’t know how it happened!”
            “I didn’t touch her doll!”
            “Maybe a robber broke it.” 

If telling a lie is “safer” than the truth, the young child will often choose what he considers is the path of least resistance.  

Related Article: Will Your Child Grow Up To Be A Thief?

Helpful Responses to Small Children’s Lies

Of course we want to raise honest children who understand that lying is not permissible. The first step, however, is understanding that their tales are not a moral defect. The second step is allowing our children to tell us the truth, without provoking more lies! Here are steps we can take to move them toward internalizing truth even at young ages.

1. Help them separate reality from fantasy. Now that we know their grandiose “stories” aren’t a character flaw, we can stop “disproving.”

“Benjy, you know that’s not true. You didn’t get a car for Hanukkah, and it certainly didn’t lift you up!”

 versus

“Wow! You wish you had that fancy blue car!”
“You wish you could go anywhere, any time you’d like to!”
“Now, what did you get for Hanukkah?”

By dealing with the wish, we make it known that there’s a difference between wishful thinking and reality without embarrassment or humiliation. The child is now ready to truth-tell without feeling defensive. 

2. Allow children to tell us the truth – even the unpleasant ones. Our youngster tells us passionately: “I hate pre-school!”

“No you don’t.” “That’s not nice.” “You’re a smart boy who will love school!”    

versus

“Wow! I see a boy who had a bad day. Tell me about it.”

An ugly feeling from our children hurts us! Yet when we rush in to deny we inadvertently teach “denial” and discourage “truth.” Allowing the feeling invites truth, and more conversation to help our child look at different perspectives and perhaps modify.

 “Ah … so you had an argument with your best friend. That’s tough. So, who did you play with?”

“ Rebecca. We went on the slide.”

“That must’ve been fun.”

“Yeah. I’ll ask her again tomorrow.”

3. When young children “cover” their obvious mistakes or naughty behavior we don’t ignore it. We call them on it without provoking even more defensive lies.

Four-year-old Adam broke his LeapFrog computer when struggling to take it from his three-year-old sister, Lisa. He quickly threw it in the attic, where it was not only  further smashed, his parents found it.

DAD:               “Where’s your new computer?”

ADAM:            “Hmmm. Dunno.”

DAD:               “Well, find it!”

ADAM:            “Maybe Lisa stole it.”

DAD:               “She did NOT steal it. YOU BROKE IT. You’re lying. I                            hate liars!” then spanked him.

                                                Versus

DAD:               “I see your new computer is broken. Too bad. I know you liked it. Maybe if I’d seen it earlier I could’ve helped fix it.”

ADAM:            “Can I have another one?!”

DAD:               “’Fraid not. It was expensive, and needed to be taken care of.”    

This dad above didn’t get hysterical, prophesize or preach. He stayed practical and factual. Adam learned that a) I can tell Dad the truth without catastrophe; b) It might have been in my best interest to do so; c) I need to take care of my things.

If we, as adults, model truth by accepting it, understand what our child is communicating, react calmly, teach that escaping consequences through lying is only a temporary and not acceptable “fix,” and realize that in short order he or she will understand the moral implications, we can not only relax a bit, but help them on their way to decent, honorable Jewish behavior – that doesn’t involve orange jumpsuits.

Published: March 25, 2012


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Visitor Comments: 3

(2) Anonymous, March 27, 2012 5:40 PM

what do you do when child says "he made me do it"

I had one child always spinning fantastic tales from 2 until 4years. I taught him (together with his teachers) the difference between fantasy and reality. My next child is 4 and just recently started lying about everything. Whether he already got a candy or not, or when he does something wrong he insists over and over again that it isn't his fault because so and so "made him do it." I try to reinforce that no one can make him do something he doesn't want to do. What is a better way to handle this?

marnie, the author, March 28, 2012 8:17 PM

Hi ... your "imaginative" 4-year-old.

If you haven't seen the Britcom "OUTNUMBERED" do so. You'll love it. Onto yours ... while of course I don't know the whole situation, one small give away might be when he says "not my fault," which suggests he fears telling the truth. You might want to try the technique of telling rather than asking when he does something wrong. If he's blaming others when he's the "guilty" party, describing that no one can or should make him do what he doesn't want to do may not be the issue. The real issue is imparting the knowledge that YOU know he did it, and it's better to fess up. The strategy: If you're quite sure it was your little guy, instead of asking "Did you do it?" or similar, simply state the truth: Eg: "You took your friend's toy. It's in your left pocket. Give it to me now, please." Boom! Using this technique breaks the cycle of having to lie again, to cover another lie. When he hands it over, calmly say, now you'll return it and apologize. Each time you call him on an untruth, you: 1- don't want him to feel he has to compound the lie: 2- will hopefully teach that truth has greater rewards than covering, which brings lectures, disappointment, and guilt on his part. Try it and do write me back with any results. Shalom with love, Marnie .

(1) ruth housman, March 25, 2012 3:38 PM

there are all kinds of lies

Often when children lie, as in these examples, they are not driven by duplicity but rather, as you say, by fantasy. and the amazing imagination that children possess. I don't think there is harm in this, and it's really THE way of Creativity, as in what IF, and in believing What IF, which is the substance of fairy tales, and in fact, most works of fiction, and certainly improv. When someone says to you, there's a big pink elephant standing behind you, if you say, NO, you stop the flow of conversation, and you stop the imagination. But if you continue and say, WOW, and he is eating a chocolate chip ice cream cone with colored sprinkles! well then you augment the story, and that is what we do, what storytelling is all about. The child knows it's not true, but the child is having some fun, so smile with him or her, and enjoy this by similing and a dose of laughter. Laughter, you must know, is Best Medicine. RELAX. Enjoy life. Especially the purity and joy of children. Do not squash this. They KNOW. And we do, too!

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