Awhile back, I posted about some research done on lying in children.  A very brief explanation of the study was that kids lied more often and more effectively when punishment was on the line.  Because so many children go through a lying phase, or more than a phase, I am writing this post to talk about ways to consider and deal with dishonesty.

Let’s first think about why lying gets under our skin so terribly.  Well, as parents we know that honesty is critical to healthy relationships, to having integrity, and to resolving problems.  Dishonesty can land you in a heap of interpersonal, academic, legal, and/or professional trouble both in the present and in the future and nobody wants that for their kids.

Now let’s look at our goals in confronting our child’s dishonesty.  First, we want to know the truth and we want for our kids to be able to readily share it.  Second, we want for our children to be able to make amends when their behavior affects somebody else, not skirt around the truth and try to get out of taking responsibility for it.  Third, we want for our children to be able to learn from their mistakes.  If they cannot be honest about those mistakes, then the learning is also lost.  You can probably add a lot of other goals to this list.  For this post, I’ll focus on the three above.

Okay, so how can we approach lying while keeping those three goals in mind?  Let’s start with the first goal: obtaining the truth.  This one simply takes a good dose of common sense.  If our kids fear us, fear being punished, fear the lecture, etc., then they will be less likely to come clean.  In Parenting with Love & Logic, the authors talk about the mistake parents make by stating that the child will be better off for telling the truth and then promptly punishing the child once the truth is told (p. 198-199).  Lesson learned: do not tell the truth.  Instead, parents can invite the child to tell the truth and rather than going bananas about whatever that truth is, they can instead thank the child for telling the truth, acknowledge that it was probably difficult to tell it, and then move on to the second goal: making amends.

Now I’ll get to amends in a moment, but I wanted to stay on goal one for a moment because there are likely going to be times that your child simply presses on with a lie.  Oftentimes, this happens because your child has been placed in a situation where he may feel compelled to lie, something Ginott referred to as “provoked lying” (p. 65-71).  Here are some things to consider: accusatory tones, statements, and/or questions will likely result in the lie being defended.  The why’s, how could you’s, and what were you thinking’s can pretty much assure us that our children would rather we didn’t know the truth.  

And one more thing to consider here: if you know the truth please don’t pretend that you don’t.  It is more productive for everyone if you simply state the truth and then move on to the second goal of making amends.  For example, your child comes to you with finger paint on her shirt and you say, “How did that finger paint get on your shirt?!”  Is she likely to respond in the same way as she would had you said matter-of-factly, “You got finger paint on your shirt.  What are you going to do about that?”  You get the idea.

 Now on to making amends.  Here is an opportunity for children to take responsibility for their behavior and it can be done in a way that puts the onus on the child for making a situation right.  How many of us have said these words to our child, “Now say you’re sorry”?  And then what do we usually get?  The empty apology, the humiliated apology, the resentment-filled apology, or some other type of sorry that just does not help in the character-building realm.  Here is another way to approach the situation: “Okay, so you broke the picture frame when you were throwing the ball in the house.  You were probably pretty worried about what I would do when I found out.  Well, how can you make this situation better?”  Having the child come up with and execute a plan can oftentimes yield surprising results.  And if the child struggles to come up with a plan, then you can make a simple offer.  “Let me know if you would like some help coming up with ideas.”  This approach allows your child to remain in the driver’s seat (because we do ultimately want them to be the ones to take responsibility) while also having a wise resource to tap: you.

Putting together goal one and goal two, we have met goal three: learning (and learning the messages that we really want them to learn).  We have allowed our child the opportunity to learn that telling the truth is beneficial and that mistakes can be made and remedied.  True, our behaviors may have consequences that cannot be undone, but at least we will be putting our child on the path of doing everything that he can think of to make things better.

One last thing: when you have a moment to connect with your child after the lying dust has settled it can be a good idea to have a heart-to-heart.  This is a good time to again commend your child for telling the truth and for talking about why honesty is important as well as some of the reasons that people lie.  This talk can be a way to help your child understand himself a little more as well as not feel that something is inherently wrong with him.  As always, this talk does not mean lecture.  It means having a talk something like this:

“I want to tell you again how proud I am that you told me the truth about losing my watch.  I know that I can go pretty bonkers when you lose my things and I can definitely freak out when I find out that you have not been honest with me.  That took some serious courage! 

“As someone that loves you very much, I need to say something to you about telling the truth.  I know how important it is to be honest with people so they can trust you and help you when you need it.  I get why it’s hard sometimes to tell me what really happened.  There’s the bonkers factor, for one, and lots of kids have that same fear about their parents.  They also sometimes feel really embarrassed or upset and don’t think that they can make up for what they did so they don’t want anyone to find out.  I promise that I will do my best to not lose it when you tell me about something not so great that you did and I really hope that you’ll feel more okay about telling me about what’s going on.”

Thanks for reading!  -Anita


Cline, F. & Fay, J. (2006). Parenting with love & logic: Teaching children responsibility (updated and expanded ed.). Colorado Springs, CO: Pinon Press.

Ginott, H.G. (2003). Between parent and child: The bestselling classic that revolutionized parent-child communication (revised and updated ed.). New York: Three Rivers Press.

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6 Responses to It Wasn’t Me: How to Handle Your Child’s Dishonesty

  1. Julia says:

    What about lying for other purposes besides getting out of trouble? Our son lies by pretending he knows things that he doesn’t. Or pretending that he’s had experiences that we know he hasn’t had. (We tease him about all the amazing experiences he has when we aren’t around.) It seems like a pride thing for him.


    • Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D. says:

      Ah, a very good question, Julia! It is not uncommon for kids to embellish and/or create stories that make them sound cool. The tricky part is that these stories can be pretty easy to spot and it is not so easy for kids to deal with it once they are found out. If I had to guess, I would say that your son may not be able to find a graceful way to handle the being found out part. Without wanting to admit to the fib while also wanting to save face, kids sometimes end up simply digging a bigger hole.

      Something you can do when he tells his stories is to convey that you are listening while keeping it sincere since kids can pretty easily detect when we’re being sarcastic or disingenuous. Something along the lines of “How interesting this sounds…” or “You sound really excited about this.” can all engage your child, allow him to not feel humiliated because he has been caught in a story, and give him the attention that he was likely seeking in the first place by coming up with the story. Another part to this is to be just as interested in the regular old day-to-day things that he shares. If he gets attention without feeling like he needs to somehow sound cooler, then maybe the truth will be enough. You can always get the ball rolling with And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street by Dr. Seuss. It might be a good way to open up the dialogue about the story-telling. Indirectly giving your son good ways to handle getting caught in telling a story can come out of your discussion. “Sometimes when kids tell stories it can be embarrassing when they get found out. I wonder what would have happened if the boy had just told his dad that the walk was kind of boring so he wanted to make it sound more interesting.” Just let him sit with that.

  2. Liliana villanua says:

    My grandson keeps lying and this is mainly in school, he is six years old ,very bright and smart but he keeps lying ,he steels little things he doesn’t even need and he hits kids ,even if they are double his age! My daughter is desperate and does not know what else to do.My daughter and her husband have done every thing possible, like talking to him, punishments etc.etc.and when you see him he is a good little boy, he cares for people, he seems worry if he see someone in pain or writing, even takes care that nothing bad happens to his smaller cousins so he is not of a bad nature. I don’t know if is important but he has a brother 14 months younger than him. What can we do?

    • Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D. says:

      Dear Ms. Villanua,

      Thank you for writing. I hesitate to offer up too many suggestions here because there is an extensive information-gathering process that is key to understanding and working on these types of issues. Based on the information that you provided, it looks like your grandson may be seeking out a sense of power and control wherever he can find it. The behaviors that you describe seem to be escalating and I would recommend talking with a child psychologist/therapist that specializes in working with younger children to see if a better understanding of what is driving his behavior can be provided. In the meantime, your daughter and son-in-law can help their son gain that sense of power and control through using techniques such as forced choice, which I wrote about in an earlier post and is still one of my all time favorite parenting techniques. With a younger brother who is likely newly walking and needs his own level of attention from mom and dad, it is not surprising that your grandson may find some unsavory ways of gaining both control and attention. Helping him find ways of having his needs met appropriately will be very important. For example, if a child yells about what he wants, a parent can let him know that when he needs something he can use respectful words to ask for it. It is critical to emphasize how TO do something more than how not to do something so that information can have a better chance of sticking.

      Best wishes,

  3. Rebecca SanJorge says:

    My grandson is 3 yrs and 9 mos old, he is a happy, smart, well behaved little boy. In the past few months he has said things to me that are not true, but to look at him he is clearly upset by what he is telling me and this worries me. Here is an example: We will be happy and playing, all of a sudden he will go sit somewhere looking sad and out of place, I will approach him and say, “What’s wrong baby, why are you sitting here alone?” to which he will reply, “I don’t like you anymore grandma”. I say, “Why baby? What happened?”, and he replies, “Because you hit me”. Of course, I did not hit him. Why is this happening? I always heard that toddlers do not have the capacity to construct a lie, and it absolutely did not happen, but yet he is clearly upset about it. Is this a phase, should I be worried? What should I do?

    • Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D. says:

      Hi Rebecca, In response to your comment and question about your grandson, there are several potential reasons for this type of behavior. I would recommend reading this article that explains dishonesty through the different developmental stages. It might strike a cord with you. Another idea is to look at what happens before your grandson makes these types of statements. Was he playing happily with you and had this interrupted by an another person or distraction? It is probably an effective way to draw you closer to him when he feels that your attention is (or even possibly could be) moving to something else. Also, as you likely know, children this age are certainly capable of misinterpreting the actions and intentions of others and he may very well do this during your interactions, labeling behavior as hitting when it is not. Finally, without trying to arouse too much alarm about the behavior, it might also be a good idea to be curious about whether somebody else might be hitting him in some way and whether his statements are more about letting you know this.

      In terms of what you can do directly with your grandson, it might be helpful to just be gentle and curious with him about his statements. “Hmm. I hit you? Whoa. Can you show me what happened?” Or “Goodness, I certainly don’t remember hitting. Hitting isn’t nice and I don’t want anyone to hit you. I wonder if anyone does.” There are a variety of ways to move through these conversations. My best advice, however, is to react very little to it when you are with him and do see if the phase passes.

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