All children tell lies from time to time.
In fact, it's considered a sign of intelligence when a child learns to effectively lie.
"If you look at the components necessary for all of the simplest of lies, they show a certain amount of social, neurological, intellectual, and emotional development," Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D., psychologist, and author of six books on child development, told Healthline.
Reasons for lying vary, adds Kutner. However, he says most kids lie because doing so is the most effective solution to their perception of a problem.
For instance, consider finding a 3-year-old standing in the kitchen next to a wall smeared with jam. She's got jam all over her shirt and is holding the jam jar in her hand. Yet when you ask if she smeared jam on the wall, she says, "No."
"I'd be surprised if any 3-year-old said she did it,"' Kutner said. "If you look at the logic of a very young child, they have difficulty distinguishing between doing something bad and being someone bad. If they don’t think of themselves as a bad person, by that primitive logic, they couldn’t have done bad.”
As children become older, Kutner notes that they begin to understand implications of what they're doing and develop more empathy and understanding, so lying becomes more complicated.
They may lie to boost self-esteem or avoid punishment.
Fear of punishment
In a recent BBC documentary, “The Truth About Children Who Lie,” Psychotherapist Philippa Perry references research by Dr. Victoria Talwar, a renowned expert on children’s social-cognitive development at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.
Talwar and her colleagues developed a test called the "Peeping Game.” In 2011, they used the game at two different West African schools.
One school had strict disciplinary rules and the other was more relaxed.
During the study, children were asked to guess what object was making a noise behind them without looking at it. Adults were out of the room during the test.
When the adults returned to the room, they asked the children to identify the object and asked them if they looked at it.
"We found that children who were in an environment where strict, harsh punitive discipline was used were more likely to lie and developed better lie-telling skills earlier in age compared to other children," Talwar told Healthline. "The takeaway is that a harsh punitive environment may foster dishonesty."
Although Talwar's study looked only at lying in an educational setting, she says strict parenting may have similar results.
"What we know based upon my research and the wider literature on children’s antisocial behavior, is that strict parenting that is insensitive to the child and is harsh in nature (as opposed to strict parenting where there are firm limits in place but still a respect for the child’s beliefs and feelings) does not promote the internalization of moral behavior and principles. And can lead to children engaging in more transgressive behavior," Talwar said.
Kutner adds that if children don't see an alternative to lying, then they think they have no other choice.
"If the child believes his parents are going to hit him, which is aversive, if he admits that he came home late, then the logical thing to do is tell them he was home early and they missed him," says Kutner. "Lying is an adaptive behavior."
Can parenting affect lying?
Talwar says there's not a simple answer to which type of parenting style can best guard against lying.
"Parents need to have firm rules and expectations of their child, but they should not be authoritarian and [should] be sensitive and high in parental warmth," she said.
Kutner agrees and notes that it's not a matter of being an assertive or passive parent.
"If you have a child who is chronically lying or doing it in a way that's self-destructive, what you want to do is help that child have a better life. You don’t want to become a cop and try to catch them in a lie. That's not the point. You want to help your child overcome whatever it is that lead to the feelings that lead to the lie," he said.
For example, if your 8-year-old claims he handed in his homework, but the teacher says he didn't, Kutner says rather than pushing your son to admit to lying, focus on a solution, such as ways to help your child become more organized.
"The child may think, 'If I say I didn't hand in my homework, I'll be in trouble. My parents will reject me and punish me,'" says Kutner.
He suggests approaching lying as a disciplinary issue rather than a call for punishment.
"Remember lying is normal. When disciplining your child, your role is to help teach them what alternative things he or she could do instead of lying," Kutner said. "You don’t want to focus on telling him that he's a liar, but rather try to recognize the underlying issue for the lying and come up with a solution that your child didn't think of simply because he's a child."