Why Children Lie


Lying is a perfectly normal part of a child’s developmental process. However, chronic lying may be a cry for help.

Whether it’s claiming that her dolls talk to her or denying that he hit his baby brother, children say things that are endearing, infuriating–and completely untrue. Lying is a perfectly normal part of the developmental process, as children learn to distinguish fantasy from reality and ultimately, develop a conscience. “Children lie for the same reasons as adults — to get what they want and avoid being punished,” says George Scarlett, professor of Child Development at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

So there’s no need to panic when your child is dishonest. But like other everyday childhood issues–tantrums, hitting, bedwetting– it can be difficult to differentiate between what’s normal and what’s problem behavior.

“You really need to have a developmental framework to understand how your child perceives reality at different ages,” says Garold Lyman, Ph.D., clinical director of the Cambridge Youth Guidance Center in Cambridge, Mass. A child’s view of truth and reality evolves through childhood as her cognitive and emotional functioning develops during the pivotal stages described below.

How your child understands truth and reality at different ages Ages 2-5: Even at this early stage, children can distinguish between fantasy and reality under certain circumstances, according to Scarlett. For instance, they can understand what’s real and what’s not when they play pretend. However, children’s view of reality is often distorted by their immature thinking. For instance a child might say that the sun rises and sets because it’s following him.

Scarlett believes that the issue at this stage is not so much fantasy vs. reality as much as it is wish vs. reality. “When children have a very strong wish for something, it can dictate their perception of truth and what’s right and wrong.” For example, Emily might insist that she really needs that ‘Barney’ tote bag to carry her books. Or children may say “that a game is fair because they’re winning,” Scarlett explains.

Ages 5-8: From 5 years on, children generally do not confuse wish and reality, according to Scarlett. “No matter how strong their feelings are, they should know what is truth and what is not truth,” he says. If a child lies to get what she wants or avoid punishment, she knows what she is doing. As children move from fantasy play to developing skills that build self-esteem, they often exaggerate their abilities. Hence, Jimmy may claim that he hit more home runs than he actually did.

Ages 9-11: By this time a child should have a conscience and the capacity to exercise self-control when tempted to lie. These qualities slowly develop through childhood, according to Scarlett. And of course no two children mature at the same rate.

Adolescence:¬†As parents well know, adolescents are in a class by themselves. “As children form their own identities separate from parents and other authority figures, it’s common for teens to lie or to avoid telling the truth”.

Should parents punish kids for lying? If your child tells a lie, don’t overreact, advise both Scarlett and Lyman. Parents are probably wiser when they say “okay you lied, let’s move on,” rather than feeling that they need to be harsh in order for the child to learn that lying is wrong.


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