Children Lying

Children Lying

"I have been studying deception professionally for many years, but it was not easy to deal with it as a parent..."
- Paul Ekman, PhD


Why do kids lie?


First and foremost, it’s important for adults to understand and accept that it’s perfectly normal to catch your children lying. Just like adults, we typically find children lying when they want to avoid punishment. Beginning in adolescence, another common motivation to lie is wanting to protect their privacy. There is no clear-cut, simple, or decisive answer as to why some kids lie more than others, though. Instead, it is necessary to look at the individual’s personal traits, their environment, culture, and, occasionally, their mental and emotional status.


What can parents expect when it comes to children lying?


Almost everything about the way we see children lying changes as they grow and develop. Their understanding of deception, their attitudes about lying, their ability to lie successfully, their moral judgments of the lies they tell and are told, and the social implications of these lies evolve with new life experiences.


What do kids consider to be a lie?

A child’s understanding of what can, can’t, should and shouldn’t be considered a lie becomes more nuanced with age. Starting at around the age of four, most children are able to distinguish obvious truths from lies. However, until about eight years of age, most children will consider any false statement they’re told to be a lie. This is because it is not yet clear to them that someone’s intention combined with the accuracy of the information must be considered together to determine whether someone is lying. Even if a young child knows you didn’t intend to mislead them, they will still call you a liar because you provided them with false information. It’s only around the age of eight that children will not automatically consider a person a liar if they know that person is giving false information unwittingly.

How do attitudes about lying change with age?


With their understanding of deception still developing, it makes sense that a child’s attitude about the ways in which people lie and the consequences of such lies are bound to evolve, too.

Many studies have shown us that children as young as four believe that the intention to mislead someone is “bad” without exception. At this age, we expect their thought processes and moral judgments to be more black and white. This mentality leads them to condemn the act of lying more than older children or adults do. 

Between the ages of ten and twelve, children no longer consider lying always wrong. Instead, their judgments depend on a number of factors including intention and outcome. Many developmental psychologists have proposed that a child’s capacity to make moral judgments proceeds through a series of stages. 

Below is a chart based on the work by Lawrence Kohlberg, built upon the original ideas of developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget. The ages listed for each stage in the chart are only rough guidelines. Not everyone reaches each stage, and when we feel strong emotions we may move back to earlier stages. Keeping this in mind may be helpful when conceptualizing and speaking about lying with kids of different ages.


When do children begin telling lies?


Not only are children learning to identify and distinguish lies from truths around four years old, but this is also the time we start to see some children begin to tell lies; they are not simply making mistakes, or confusing fantasy with reality, but deliberately attempting to mislead. Interestingly, this is younger than what many parents, teachers and researchers previously thought. 

It is also normal to see other deceptive behaviors emerge as early as the first grade, such as cheating on assignments or tests in school.


What abilities are necessary to develop in order to lie?


Many of the abilities children develop as they age are necessary in order to increase their ever-growing independence. These new skills, however, also enable children to become more successful if and when they choose to lie. 

Read more about the science of learning to lie.


Do genetics affect children’s lying habits?


Research has found there is a weak link showing siblings tend to lie with similar frequency. Taking into account that most siblings are raised in the same home environment, another study was conducted to see if the results would be similar for siblings who had been separated from one another. The correlation in the amount of lying between siblings was still evident. 

Furthermore, it is not surprising that kids who lie the most often come from homes in which parents also lie often or endorse breaking the rules, such as lying to traffic cop to get out of a ticket, or giving a fake excuse for being late. 

Contrary to popular belief, research on the topic of gender as it relates to deception skills has been inconclusive.


How can parents encourage truthfulness in children?


It’s helpful to have open conversations about the importance of honesty and the potential consequences of dishonesty. Furthermore, creating situations where your child feels less compelled to lie and can tell the truth, makes a big difference. 

Tip #1: Start early by talking with your child about what it means to be dishonest and share your expectations around honesty. 

  • Parents should know that their children will not view lying and other moral issues in the same way as they do, at least not completely. The understanding of truth and lies is evolving constantly throughout childhood and into early adulthood, so the conversation should be an on-going one.
  • In addition to explaining the potential consequences of dishonesty, sharing the merits of being honest and how it helps to build meaningful, enduring relationships is equally important.

Tip #2: When confronting your child about lying, enter the situation with the intention of having a calm and open conversation. 

  • Talk, don’t lecture. Enter the conversation calmly, without an angry voice or demeanor. 
  • If you or your child is feeling very emotional, give yourself some time to cool off first. 
  • Throughout these conversations, remember to tie in the importance of emotional awareness

Tip #3: Try to figure out why your child lied in the first place.

  • To support an open dialog between you and your child, ask questions that give you a chance to see things from their perspective. 
    • Questions to ask your child: Did you think you were telling the truth?/Did you know you were lying? Why did you want to do that?/What were you hoping to achieve?
    • Questions to ask yourself: Am I doing something that in some way encourages or forces my child to lie? Is my child lying in response to some other problem at home? Is it due to the influence of friends?

Tip #4: Prioritize respect, and remember that building trust is a continuous process.

  • In order to build trust, children have to know that they won’t be punished for being honest (even if it’s not necessarily what their parents want to hear). It’s important to make it clear to your child that you would rather know the truth, even when it means fessing up to doing something that they know they shouldn’t have done (e.g., Your child calling for a ride home from a party they weren’t supposed to be at).

When should parents consider seeking help for their child’s lying habits?


All children, and most adults, lie at least some of the time. Generally, parents should start to worry when a child lies frequently, especially if the lying persists for a long period.  It’s important to note that this could just be a phase, or it could be indicative of a more persistent and problematic pattern. In any case, the first step is to explain why lying is harmful, using some of the tips from above. 

If, however, you have tried to address the matter with your child and don’t think you are succeeding, then you may want to consider seeking counseling from a therapist or pediatrician. An expert who has experience working with children can help parents understand whether lying is age-appropriate or indicative of a potential problem.


Additional Resources


Learn to recognize and respond to the emotional expressions of others with our online micro expressions training tools to increase your ability to detect deception and catch subtle emotional cues.


Expand your knowledge of emotional skills and competencies with in-person workshops offered through Paul Ekman International.


Delve into personal exploration and transformation with Cultivating Emotional Balance.


Build your emotional vocabulary with the Atlas of Emotions, a free, interactive learning tool created by Drs. Paul and Eve Ekman at the request of the Dalai Lama.


Read Dr. Ekman’s guide to emotions in his best-seller, Emotions Revealed


Additional Resources

Discover how to heighten your communication skills, improve your emotional intelligence, and detect deception with micro expressions.
Combining his professional expertise in deception and personal experiences as a father, Dr. Ekman explores the reasons why children lie, how to address deceptive behaviors, and more.
Can you tell if someone is lying? Test your knowledge and share your results!