Kids lie. And the first time your child tells a fib, it can catch you off guard. Whether they deny breaking something or say they ate their vegetables when they’re really hiding under the plate — it’s not unusual for children to lie. Still, as a parent, your concern is understandable. After all, no one wants to raise a child who doesn’t know the value of honesty or who can’t be trusted to tell the truth.

The study of children’s deception isn’t a new one. Charles Darwin remarked on his own child’s lies in the late 1800s, suggesting that even children under 3 years old are capable, “motivated, and will attempt to tell strategic lies to cover up their transgressions.”

But in many instances, the dishonesty starts slowly: For example, children often cry out in feigned pain after falling, but only after checking that one of their parents is in the room.

Lying Is a Part of Development 

According to Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker, children aren’t born with an ethical code; it’s something they learn by doing. For young children, avoiding a parent’s anger after they break something might seem like the right thing to do for everyone involved. They lie to protect themselves. Likewise, eliciting a sympathetic response when they fall — but aren’t necessarily hurt — reaffirms that they are safe and loved.

Before they know that lies aren’t morally acceptable, or can even grasp what moral acceptability is, young children learn that their actions and words have an immediate effect on the world around them, and they practice manipulating this.

As children get older, however, this changes.

Between the ages of 5 and 10, children begin to understand what lying is, and when taught by parents the value of honesty, they begin to grasp that it isn’t okay. In an effort to be mature and gain approval, they’re more likely to tell hard truths than rely on lies.

Still, this doesn’t mean that lying stops. Kids might lie:

  • to avoid negative consequences
  • in error
  • to get out of doing something
  • to gain peer approval
  • to mimic the actions of those around them
  • when parents are too strict
  • out of fear because they don’t know when it’s socially acceptable to lie (e.g., white lies to protect someone)

Easing Your Child Away from Lying

Moving through these developmental stages with your child simply requires you to teach them about honesty. They may have questions about when it’s okay to stretch the truth and when it isn’t. For instance, if your child has ever witnessed you protect someone’s feelings with a white lie, explain to them why they did that. Likewise, when a child lies about something they did, talk to them about the repercussions of dishonesty and the value of taking responsibility for their actions.

Especially in younger children, it’s important to not lose your temper when you discover a lie. Kids don’t understand lies like adults do, and it’s up to us to guide them.

A Sign of Something More Serious?

In rare cases, lying could indicate a problem. When your child’s lying is accompanied by other behavioral problems or symptoms, you may want to talk to your pediatrician. Watch for things like:

  • aggression
  • cheating and stealing
  • inattentiveness or lack of focus
  • losing items
  • anxiety in social situations
  • skipping school

Compulsive lying could be tied to attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), conduct disorder, depression, stress and anxiety, or compulsive lying syndrome. Any one of these would be cause for professional help.

In general, telling lies is a normal stage of childhood development, one that can last for several years. Help guide your child and be aware of other possible symptoms, but don’t be alarmed if your young one looks you dead in the eyes and unflinchingly lies.