You Want The Truth?

All Kids Lie, But With These 3 Parenting Tricks They Lie A Lot Less

Here’s what you should remember when trying to help kids tell the truth more consistently.

A dad talking to his daughter in her bedroom.
The Good Brigade/Getty

All kids lie. At times they lie a lot, which from a parent’s perspective, can be maddening and feel like a personal affront. But while lying is an unavoidable parenting challenge, it’s also considered a necessary developmental process that lays the groundwork for positive growth as kids get older.

This isn’t to say that lying can go unabated and unaddressed. The end goal is for kids to learn the virtue of honesty and become trustworthy individuals. And one of the first keys to raising kids who are honest and don’t tell lies is to consider why kids lie and the different types of lies they tell.

According to child and adolescent psychologist Ashley Harlow, Ph.D., it’s crucial for parents to realize that kids don’t fully recognize the difference between a truth and a lie until they’re about 3 years old. Even then, their ability to delineate what is real from what is fantasy won't fully develop for another two or three years.

“I have four kids myself, and I see this process happening right now in my home,” Harlow says. “My 4-year-old is talking about princesses and rainbows and all of the imaginary things she's interacting with over the course of the day like they’re real. But for my 6-year-old, what really happened and did not actually happen is crystal clear. Kids in that 3- to 4-year-old range can communicate articulately but do not always have a firm grip on what's true and what's not.”

With this developmental progression in mind, Harlow recommends three things parents should remember when trying to help their kids tell the truth more consistently.

1. Distinguish Between Fantasy And Evasion

It’s not always bad when kids say things that aren’t true. For example, it's okay to roll with it if a kid is exaggerating or making up information from scratch while delving into fantasy and imaginative play.

“Sometimes kids will make up stories for attention, to entertain themselves, and to test limits of what they can get parents to buy into,” Harlow says. “Parents are always the experts on their own kids — you know when you're being tested or kind of brought along for a ride. I think that it's just fine to join in the joke and then somewhere along the line let them know that we can both laugh about this because we both know it isn’t true.”

Defining and holding spaces for imaginative play helps foster creativity and free-thinking in kids while helping them learn when to stay grounded and focused. Kids should know that there are places where they can — and are even expected to — be fun and creative and goofy, though there are also environments like classrooms that require more structure. Joining in on the fun can give parents a window into their child’s inner world while maintaining an air of silliness in their relationship.

When a child makes something up to escape or avoid a negative consequence, however, parents should address those lies as opportunities to teach the virtue of honesty.

2. Take Impulse Control Into Consideration

It’s natural to ascribe intentionality to lies, but many kids fib without thinking about it. The repercussion of viewing a child’s lies through the lens that children mean to do it is that parents end up even more aggrieved — because they feel like their child is being disrespectful.

“Kids who lie due to poor impulse control can leave parents pulling their hair out,” Harlow says. “Impulsivity drives much of the dishonesty in many of the kids I work with who have diagnosed conditions like ADHD. It’s not necessarily a nefarious dishonesty. They’re just saying whatever thought pops into their head.”

In such situations, Harlow recommends not jumping on the kid immediately with a consequence. It’s also important to not let them bury themselves in a giant pile of lies by asking a follow-up without encouraging them to pause for a moment.

“It’s usually a good idea to slow things down and give the child another chance,” Harlow says. “Invite them to be a little bit more attentive to the words coming out of their mouth, which is going to be a skill that kids who struggle with impulse control will need to work hard to improve.”

If the child tells the truth after being given a second chance, Harlow advises affirming their truthfulness and moving on without a consequence. But if they’re still dishonest after a shot at a redo, it’s best to cut things off there, institute an appropriate consequence, and then move on.

Here’s an example. If you know your kid hasn’t brushed their teeth even though they insist they have, there’s no value in grilling them as to why their toothbrush is still dry. Nor is it helpful to insist they tell you what they were doing instead of brushing their teeth.

“When you know your kid is lying, don't get into a situation where you’re trying to ferret out the details or force your kid to be honest with you,” Harlow says. “When parents are trying to dig the truth out of their kids by asking more questions and doing this investigation, that causes more problems than solutions. What ends up happening most of the time is that the kid tells more lies, and the parents just get more aggravated.”

Instead, when your child lies about brushing their teeth, make them brush and then levy a logical consequence like giving up dessert the next day or getting five fewer minutes of screen time to make up for the time they wasted with their lie. That course of action keeps bedtime on track, promotes good oral hygiene, and provides a consequence that is commensurate with the transgression.

3. Praise And Reward Honesty

Although parents get frustrated when their kids aren’t honest, Harlow notes that they tend not to celebrate a child admitting a mistake with the same intensity. But affirming kids' honesty, especially when they’re honest about something that might get them in trouble.

“It's really important to catch kids being good,” he says. “If they come clean about something that they have done, make sure that you recognize that honesty, and maybe even reduce or eliminate the consequence for the problem behavior because they were honest.”

Parents can also connect with their kids by framing honesty as something that helps strengthen the parent-child relationship instead of harping on why dishonesty is so bad.

“Explain to kids that there will be times when you will really have to be able to trust them and that you really want to be able to trust them,” Harlow says. “If you have to go to their school to advocate for them when they’re being bullied or having a difficult interaction with their teacher, you’re going to want to be sure that you have all of the facts correct.”

But connection goes both ways. It can help to attempt to see things from your child’s perspective when they’re dishonest. Think of all the ways you’ve justified situational dishonesty or a white lie, and remember that they have the same mental calculations running at any given time. Kids, of course, are always listening.