Lies and fibs
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When children don’t tell the truth it can upset and worry parents. It is important to understand what the lie means to your child before you react.
Learning about the truth
Children’s understanding of the truth is related to their development.
- Telling lies has no meaning for children under three. They do not understand that thinking is private and they believe their parents can read their minds. A two year old in a shop may say ‘Why did you lose me, Mummy?’. They think mum knows where they are even when they’re out of sight.
- Three to four year olds are learning that other people don’t know what they are thinking. Children this age have a very strong imagination. They enjoy using their new knowledge and often test it out by telling ‘stories’, e.g. ‘The big bad wolf did it’. It is normal for young children to blame someone else or make up a story.
- Children in the early years of school usually want to please their parents more than they want to do the ‘right thing’. They are less likely to tell the truth if they think it will make their parents angry or upset.
- By eight or nine years of age children may have some understanding of the difference between truth and fantasy, e.g. understanding about Father Christmas.
- A child’s sense of right and wrong is usually developed by about nine or ten years of age.
Understanding and telling the truth is something that children learn over years, not something they know from birth.
Some children at about three or four have an imaginary friend. This friend usually disappears as the child grows older.
Children talk to and play with the friend. They might talk to the friend when they are upset or blame the friend when they do something wrong.
There is no need for concern unless your child seems really withdrawn and unable to get on with other children and adults.
Why children lie
Children might lie because they:
- are not old enough to understand the difference between truth and untruth, or right and wrong
- fear punishment or losing parents’ affection
- have low self-esteem and want to make themselves sound better
- want to impress their friends and fit in with the group
- really believe what they are saying is true — it is how things seem to them
- are copying other people. Parents might say that lying is wrong but not always tell the truth themselves, e.g. when someone is at the door and a parent says, ‘Tell them I am not home’
- are saying what they wish was true, e.g. ‘My dad always takes me to the football’.
- Older children and teenagers might lie because they:
- fear that if they tell the truth they will not be allowed to do something they really want to do
- have a need to keep some parts of their lives private and not share them with parents.
If you notice when your child lies it may help you understand why, e.g. is it when they are with friends, just to one person, or when they are upset?
Try to understand why your child is not telling the truth. There may be something you can help with.
Polite lying or ‘white’ lying
Most parents teach their children as they get older that there are times when it is OK not to tell the truth, such as when it is not polite or could be hurtful, for example:
- saying ‘Thank you for the lovely present’ whether they like it or not, or to say they like food offered to them whether they like it or not
- avoiding using hurtful words such as ‘hating’ something or someone or that something or someone is ‘ugly’.
It takes a long time for children to learn the difference between lies to be kind and lies for other reasons.
What parents can do
- Try not to get into a battle about telling the truth.
- Teach children why it is important to tell the truth, e.g. ‘When people tell the truth it helps us to trust them’. Let them know it is safe to tell the truth — you will not be angry if something wrong has happened. You know that children are still learning how to do things.
- For younger children, teach the difference between truth and fantasy, e.g. ’That was a good story’ or ‘I can see you make up lovely stories, maybe we can write them down to keep’.
- If you think your child is afraid of punishment, talk about the ways that you will deal with mistakes so they know not to fear being honest.
- Try not to accuse the child of mistakes. ’I see there’s been an accident with the milk, let’s clean it up’ or ‘Can you clean it up?’ rather than ‘Did you spill the milk?’
- Show your child you understand that some lies are wishes, e.g. if a child says that their dad is phoning all the time and you know this is not true, you could say ’It sounds like you wish Dad could be here all the time’.
- Give older children and teenagers some personal privacy. Ask what you need to know to protect them, but don’t pry too much. Often they will talk to you when the time is right and when they feel you will listen without judging.
- Tell the truth yourself. Don’t break promises because to a child that seems like telling a lie. If you can’t do what you promised, give a good reason.
- If your child keeps lying for any reason or is unable to accept the truth when it is shown to them in a caring way, you may want to seek counselling.
Notice when your child tells the truth and let them know you are pleased. Don’t label your child ‘a liar’ because labels tend to encourage the kind of behaviour you don’t want.
Looking for more information
ParentLink—for other parenting guides, online parenting information:
Child and Family Centres—for parenting information and support
Raising Children’s Network—covering topics for parenting newborns to teens:
This guide’s content was produced by Parenting SA, Women’s and Children’s Health Network.
Department of Health and Ageing, Government of South Australia (revised 05/15). Reproduced with permission and adapted by the ACT Government to reflect Australian Capital Territory laws (08/17).
Important: This information is not intended to replace advice from a qualified practitioner.
Published by ParentLink, Community Services Directorate, GPO Box 158, Canberra ACT 2601, email email@example.com, telephone 13 34 27.
ACT Government Publication No. 17/0608 (August 2017).