Most kids lie: 5 ways to keep them (more) honest

Why do lies from our kids just make our blood boil?

“I already washed my hands!”“My brother hid my homework!”

“I didn't eat the candy!”

Most well-meaning parents have little tolerance for untruths — and they’re not wrong to want to teach their kids honesty. We know that kids lie for many of the same reasons adults do, whether to avoid punishment or to impress.

New research sheds new light on the littlest liars — and offers some good news. Kang Lee, a professor at the University of Toronto and director of the Institute of Child Study, found that when your preschooler starts falsifying the facts, it’s simply a sign he’s reached a new developmental milestone in the way he organizes information in his mind. It’s perfectly normal, and expected. It also doesn't mean he’ll turn out to be a pathological liar — in fact, that’s quite unlikely.

According to Lee's study, lying is still fairly uncommon for 2-year-olds, but rampant from age 4 through mid-teens. By age 7, kids are really good at looking truthful even when they lie — even their own parents often couldn’t tell if they were fibbing. And after about age 17, lying starts to decrease. Clearly, it’s a big problem during most of childhood, but it’s not necessarily for life.

OK, so lying is a fact of life, at least in the younger years. And while we don’t have to lie awake at night worrying about our kids’ fibs, that doesn’t mean we can just let them go. What can we do to keep our kids honest down the road?

It’s important for parents to foster a safe environment for the truth. A few tips include:

Skip the angry punishment. If you yell or retaliate when your child messes up, you’ll simply encourage more lying in the future. Instead, respond to any misbehavior in a calm, respectful, relevant way. Your kids will be much more likely to tell the truth if they know you won’t fly off the handle.

Don’t prompt a lie. If you know Grace hasn’t cleaned her room, don’t ask if she has. Instead, say, “What’s your plan for getting your room clean before suppertime?”

Uncover the whole truth. When your child lies, it may be a warning sign that something else is going on — most likely that he doesn’t feel safe to tell the truth or doesn’t want to disappoint, for instance.  If you catch your child in a lie, try to get to the root. Say, “I can see it’s tough for you to tell me the truth. What would help you be honest?” The more you understand why your child lies, the more effective you’ll be at training him to stick to the facts.

Encourage honesty. Whenever your child fesses up, especially if it’s difficult, be sure to notice. Say, “I know it was hard for you to tell me the truth, but I really respect you for it. You’re really growing up!”

Come clean yourself. Kids aren’t born knowing how to lie — they learn it from their parents and other trusted adults. They hear and understand more than you know, so when you call in “sick” to a meeting and head out on a bike ride instead, your children will take it to mean that it’s OK to lie. Be truthful, even if it’s hard — and your kids will eventually learn.

Remember that it’ll take some time for your kids to build up the level of trust needed to foster truthfulness, so be patient. If your child continues to lie often, even after you implement a few positive changes, or the lies are intended to hurt others, go ahead and seek professional help. 

And next time your 5-year-old mentions “A dinosaur stole my spoon so I can’t eat my peas,” have a good laugh and say, “What a silly story that is.” Then point out that the dinosaur must’ve hidden it under her napkin, because it was there all along. Most of all, don’t worry too much. If you’re willing to train honesty throughout childhood, she’s very likely to learn.

Parenting expert Amy McCready is the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and the author of If I Have to Tell You One More Time…The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids to Listen Without Nagging, Reminding or Yelling.  For simple strategies for happy families and well-behaved kids, follow Positive Parenting Solutions on Facebook.