Ask Sarah: Why kids lie and what to do about it?

Struggling with tantrums, bedtime boundaries or simply wondering how to raise happy, confident kids? Sarah Rosensweet offers peaceful parenting advice to help families find balance.

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Q: How do I handle a situation where I know my child is lying to me?
– Mom of two, ages almost 4 and 2.5

A: If you know your child is lying and they are younger than around 6, take a deep breath. Before kids reach the ‘age of reason’ they don’t really understand the moral implications of lying. It does not mean your child is headed for a lifetime of deceit. 

The biggest reason little kids lie is what I call ‘wishful thinking.’

They WISH they had washed their hands or tidied up their rooms and when presented with the opportunity to put off or get out of the unpleasant task, they take it. 

First, let’s try to prevent the lies. Try to ask questions that don’t invite an “I wish” answer. 

Instead of, “Did you wash your hands?” ask, “Let me smell those nice fresh clean hands!” 

Instead of, “Did you clean your room?” ask, “Show me your tidy room!”

If it’s too late and you’ve already asked and gotten a lie, remind yourself that it’s not an emergency. This is normal developmental behaviour and it doesn’t mean your child is morally bankrupt.

We really don’t want to make a big deal about this. In fact, you can take heart in the fact that research shows that kids who lie tend to have a high IQ.

What do you do if it’s too late?

If you know they’re lying, don’t get into a power struggle by insisting that they admit to you that it’s a lie.

With a light-hearted tone, you can say, “I bet you WISH you’d already washed your hands. Come on! Let’s go. I’ll race you to the washroom!” 

Another reason little kids lie is because they don’t want to disappoint you or get in trouble.

If you think this is the case, you might say, “You know, I wonder if you’re afraid to tell me what happened because you think I’ll be disappointed or angry. You know what? I might not be happy about it but I will always love you no matter what and we will work together to try to fix it.” 

If this type of lie happens regularly, I would work on staying calm and not having a big negative reaction when your child messes up. Showing your displeasure won’t make your child act better, it will only make them feel bad about themselves and try to hide their mistakes with lies.

Try to stay calm and focus on repair instead of on what went wrong. We want our kids to know that they are worthy and loveable even when they mess up.

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