6 truths about children lying

“I’m not LYING,” your six-year-old screams at you, eyes brimming with tears.

He believes he's been falsely accused, but you are certain he's being dishonest.

Maybe his story has changed. Or there’s no way it happened the way he's telling it. Or he's left out (important) parts.

Teaching our kids to tell the truth can feel like an impossible task, riddled with land mines. Here are a few truths to remember.

1. Honesty is a skill kids have to learn.

Tying shoes, learning to read and swimming are all things we spend lots of time teaching our kids.

We wouldn’t expect them to “get it” the first time they try. We wouldn’t punish them if it takes a little more time than we’d expect.

In the same way, teaching kids to tell the truth is an important skill they have to learn. They won’t be born understanding what it means and how to do it. It will take trial and error – and as caregivers, we have to be ready to guide them through the process.

2. Being truthful means different things to different people.

“Our culture doesn’t have a nationally-agreed-upon definition of lying,” explains Jen Best, certified family life educator with Iowa State University Extension.

But as the caregiver, it’s part of your job to define what lying means to your family:

  • Is it lying to withhold the truth?

  • Is it lying to bend the truth to keep from hurting someone’s feelings?

  • What are the consequences of lying?

There really are some shades of grey when it comes to lying. And just because other families do it differently doesn’t mean one way is right or wrong.

But it is important for you to set up the framework for honesty in your own family – and then follow the rules yourself (see #6 for more).

3. Kids don’t always intend to lie.

Young people develop at a rapid rate, but they won’t always think or reason the way their caregivers do. A good example is time and sequence – kids can get mixed up when trying to explain something in a certain order.

So if you ask your daughter what she did today, she may get the sequence out of order or miss parts entirely. And the more you press, the more confused she may become.

This doesn’t mean she’s lying or that she isn't smart.

“Kids just don’t think in a straight line,” Jen says.

4. Kids believe in magical thinking.

“Kids think if they say something, it may be true,” explains Jen. “This magical thinking drives parents crazy, but it’s totally normal.”

So when you ask your son if he put his shoes on and he says he has, it may just mean he plans to do it or thinks he has done it because he said he has. (Say that ten times fast.)