By Dr. Gerald Deskin, Ph.D.
As parents we want to raise honest and trustworthy children. It is painful for many parents to have to face their much loved young child who lies. Yet lying is a normal function of young children until they reach the level of maturity and intelligence to realize that lying is wrong. It will take several years for children to understand what lying means and why it is advantageous to tell the truth.
For children under five separating reality from make-believe is a slow process. Children's fantasies or wishful thinking is hard to separate from reality. The feeling is that if your child wants a toy it magically transforms itself to his/her toy. It is at this age that children learn to lie to get out of trouble. Although it doesn't help to punish a child for lying at this age, parents can only impress upon their child that it is okay to tell the truth, and that by doing so they will not get into trouble. Children at this age have trouble separating reality from fantasy. They may have imaginary friends which they will defend as real. They may tell other tall stories which they will try to impress you with as true. They probably believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. All that parents can do at this age is to encourage children's imaginative life and encourage them to be honest and truthful, without punishing them if they are not.
For children from five to eight both maturity and intelligence has grown so they lie less often, but more creatively for specific purposes. Children will try out lying to see how it is accepted. They may lie about brushing their teeth, about homework, or about anything that will keep them out of trouble. Blaming a sibling is a favorite way of avoiding getting in trouble. Children at this age can learn not to lie. It is important at this age that parents also do not lie to their children or to others when their children know they are lying. They can however, learn about white lies or ways not to hurt someone's feelings. You can teach your child at this age that there are consequences for lying. Children learn that somehow parents seem to understand when they are lying and that the punishment may not be worth making up an untrue story.
From ages nine and older children lie for different reasons. They begin to develop a need for privacy and control. They share less with parents and begin slowly the process which becomes so important in adolescence of becoming independent and autonomous.
They may begin to lie more and for less obvious reasons. They may lie to parents to protect their secrets. They may lie to friends to become more popular. Lying becomes a tool to use if a child doesn't feel safe to tell the truth. Parents can help by curbing their criticism of their children and creating a situation where your child can open up and be honest with you. If there is no danger of criticism, there is no reason to lie. As parents allow for open discussions with their child in that non-critical, non-punitive atmosphere, children will learn that they are loved and accepted and will lie less or not at all. Remember, that some children feel that what they have done is "stupid" or "wrong" and will feel compelled to lie. Different ways of lying are common. We think of children committing lies. Children also lie by omission. That is, they simply do not tell you about what they have done and hope you will never find out.
Suggestions for parents:
Set aside time for listening uncritically to your child.
Let your child know that there will be mutual trust, meaning you will be honest as you can and your child should be the same.
Encourage your child's maturity and responsibility by slowly giving more and more responsibility to your child.