I have a gorgeously adorable 5 year old daughter who over the past 6 months or so has developed a bent towards lying. Adorable + lying = bad recipe for a pushover dad (I'm really not, I may be mushy but not a pushover. honest.).

I get that all young kids lie and I get that my daughter probably isn't the worst of them, but nevertheless she does lie, and often, and in very believable ways (legit tears and pleas of, I promise, I really really promise), over very minor things. Her goal in lying is naturally that she either (a) doesn't want to get in trouble, or (b) wants something (mommy said I could have candy - no. she didn't.). Lately, the issue has been when we ask her if she's done a specific thing we've told her she's not allowed to do. The answer is always "No" -- we know (or at least highly suspect) she's lying at least some of the time, but we have no real way to verify which times are truth and which times are lies. (this isn't really my question, but to try and cultivate truth we've expressed that the main thing isn't disobeying, it's lying to us about it. If you just tell the truth, we won't even be that upset at you.)

So, my question is for those of you who've gone through this stage with your kids in the past -- does it get better? I know that I need to encourage her in truth, but I mainly wonder just as a personality trait in general, can I expect her to ever do a 180 in this? My wife and I are committed to honesty, regardless of consequence - we want our daughter to be, too.

Can any amount of parenting shift her desire to lie for her benefit?

note: I tagged both pre- and primary-, because she's in Kindergarten, but only met the age cutoff by 2 months.

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    NOT all young kids lie. That is a fatal assumption you're making. You cannot solve a problem by assuming it is impossible to solve. – Wildcard Sep 29 '17 at 21:45
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    Fatal? Seems ... dramatic. – Joe Sep 29 '17 at 21:46
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    I'd just go down the route of assuming everything is a lie and acting accordingly, eg no treats, no rewards etc... After a week she'll get it and stop lying ;-) we've done that with my son at 3.5 years so at 5 she'd get it straight away. If the consequence of lying is that the truth is never believed, and the outcome is overall worse, that'll be that! – RemarkLima Sep 30 '17 at 12:22
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    Sometimes overly strict parents indirectly force a child to lie and to feel totally justified in doing so. – Mark Rogers Sep 30 '17 at 14:32
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    Can't answer because I lack the rep, but one approach I found useful for my (first grade) daughter was to catch her in a lie, then explain what loss of trust was. To reinforce this, the next time she made a claim, even though I knew it was true, I expressed disbelief, and when she expressed puzzle and annoyance at not being believed, I reminded her of the lesson about how trust is lost and earned. – Michael Oct 1 '17 at 20:17

10 Answers 10

up vote 109 down vote accepted

My daughter, a few years older than yours, is also a skillful liar when she chooses to be. My best advice is "trust but verify." Children are good at knowing what works, and if lying is a reliable, consequence free way of getting what she wants, there's no reason --from her point of view --not to deploy it. (In contrast, my son rarely lies, probably not because of superior moral fiber, but because he's such a transparently bad liar!)

At this point, I think my daughter has digested the lesson that gaining a reputation for lying results in the natural consequence being given a diminished amount of trust, which I think has helped. If you know there's a consistent pattern of lies, and you still fall for it every time, the problem is really yours, not hers.

Although I don't believe you can change a person's underlying personality, I do believe that virtues and values are very learnable. The mistake is to believe that children will just pick those up naturally, without either being taught them explicitly or experiencing the consequences of not practicing them. There's a reason previous generations spent so much time and effort explicitly teaching values (even if their methods were sometimes questionable). We as adults might roll our eyes, but I've heard my children directly refer to stories like "the boy who cried wolf" when reminding each other to be honest.

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    +1 "Trust but verify", or just don't trust. And don't forget it, and if she claims to be telling the truth, you can plainly tell her you can't trust her without verifying because of previous lies. That's useful for a 5 years old or for a teenager. – Pere Sep 30 '17 at 9:37
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    Though Joe's answer has more votes, I accepted your answer because it offered what I asked for - advice and outcomes from someone who's been there, done that, rather than theoretical philosophy with no clear evidence of success (at least none stated in that answer). – MrDuk Sep 30 '17 at 13:54
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    Good answer, though I feel like pointing out that 'trust but verify' is an oximoron. If you verify then you never really had 'trust', the 'trust' itself was just a pretense. Real 'trust' probably means you wouldn't feel the need to 'verify'. Not that I'm saying you should trust or not trust your children. I'm just pointing out the lie that is 'trust but verify'. – Mark Rogers Sep 30 '17 at 15:59
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    @MarkRogers. I have to disagree with that logic. It's not contradictory to have trust; and to admit the possibility of that trust being misplaced. And it's not contradictory to know that you are more vulnerable because your trust. The rule exist precisely because trust implys you don't feel the need to verify. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. I trust my accountant, that doesn't mean I don't read what he puts in front of me to sign. Even though I don't feel the need to, I know it is good practice to do so. – 8bitwide Oct 1 '17 at 15:02
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    @MarkRogers I think some of the confusion regarding "trust but verify" in our modern society is that we have built a society where we tend to make our decision, and then stick to it. That's rewarded. In reality, we often have to make decisions and then amend them over time. On the short term, trust means you make a decision to act as thought their word is good. Verify means that, as you go along, you are determining whether that initial trust is a good policy. If a kid abuses it too much, the argument may shift to verify first, then trust (and in this case, trust your own observations). – Cort Ammon Oct 2 '17 at 17:29

DCook's answer is heading in the right direction, but it's at it from the wrong end.

Don't ask your daughter if she did something wrong, not because she might lie to you, or she might not lie to you, or whether or not you know the answer. That's all coming from a faulty paradigm: that it's expected for your daughter to tell you the truth when you ask her if she did something wrong.

Asking her if she did something wrong is setting her up for failure, whether or not you know the answer. I know it is a "thing" parents like to do, mine did as well, where we say - as you did - "It's not whether you did it or not, but that you tell the truth about it" - but now you're the liar, aren't you? Because it darned tooting is about whether she did it or not. If it doesn't matter whether she did it or not, why are you asking? Some sort of cruel mind game?

Put it to you this way, you're on trial for stealing a car, and the prosecutor asks you "Did you do it?" What are you doing in that scenario? I highly doubt it's admitting fault, unless the prosecutor can already prove it and is offering you a deal.

What you're donig right now is training her to lie well. Because that's the only winning game theory scenario on her end: lying, and lying effectively. Lying and getting caught = bad. Telling the truth = bad. Only lying and not getting caught wins, so - that's what she's learning to do. And kids are smart. She sees how you've set up the game, and the only option you're giving her to win.

Turn the paradigm around, instead. Why are you asking her if she did [something wrong]? Either it's because you know something wrong was done by someone, and you just don't know whom, or because you weren't paying enough attention to know what was done wrong.

If something was done wrong, but you don't know by whom, then the answer is easy: make sure she knows what the actual consequences are for that particular thing happening, not the punitive ones, but just the thing that happens.

  • Aww, the TV got knocked over and now it doesn't work anymore. Now you won't be able to watch Dora! I'm very sad about that, aren't you? I don't know how it got knocked over, but whomever ran into it, I hope they're more careful in the future!

  • Hmm, it looks like all of the candy from the candy jar got eaten. I guess I won't be able to buy any more candy, since someone's eating it when they shouldn't. I don't want anyone to get sick, or get cavities, so we'll just have to go without dessert for a while.

  • Poor Janey! Come here dear. I'm really sorry you got this bruise on your arm. Jill, come over here and look at your sister! I don't know how she got this bruise, but it sure looks painful. She's crying an awful lot. I think maybe the two of you should stop playing for a while and do some quiet reading instead, since Janey got this bruise while you two were playing together. Things must have gotten a bit rougher than she can handle.

In all three of those, no accusation is made, no opportunity for her to lie: just the facts, and what happens as a result. Something that she won't be happy about, more than likely, and perhaps something that will cause her to act better next time.


All that said, the other elephant in the room is why she's lying: because she's worried about being punished. A system of discipline that does not focus on punishment, but instead focuses on development and understanding whys, encourages a child to accurately describe even things they did wrong: because they know you're not going to punish them, but instead you're going to help them learn more about why they should make a different choice in the future.

That's not for everyone, and it's not something even those practicing this method can do perfectly every time - we're all human - but it's something that works for some, and works very well.

But consider this: you say she does [thing she shouldn't do] when you're not around. Guess what: you're going to be not around an awful lot through the next 13 years, and then after that you're going to be not around mostly at all. If the only reason she's not doing [things she shouldn't do] is out of fear of punishment - guess what, those next thirteen years are not going to be much fun, because she's going to have a lot of chances to do things she shouldn't do.

If instead, the goal is teaching her how to make better choices, the how and the why more than the what, you might get to a more comfortable place - one where she's doing positive things.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Rory Alsop Oct 2 '17 at 10:55
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    It's not punishment. It's exactly as it is stated: candy jar being available was too tempting for someone, so it is taken away. We don't keep candy around my house much; it's not for the kids' sakes, but for mine, but it's still not there, for example. – Joe Oct 3 '17 at 18:25
  • My daughter did something wrong. I wanted to show her the consequence...so I was heading out with my son and not take her. I was like: You can't be around him since he's getting hurt while your playing together. She was crying and then said sorry. I'm not sure what am I suppose to do at this moment. Should I carry on and let her know that the consequence will stand no matter what? or be forgiving if it's not a fake repetitive apology – Honey May 17 at 16:58
  • @Honey Hi - comments here are really for just clarifying the answer/question that you're commenting on. You are welcome to come to Parenting Chat if you want to discuss implementing the answer, or to ask a new question if you want to get more community input. Thanks! – Joe May 17 at 18:11

Well firstly know that despite what people want reality to be, lying is a developmental skill. It needs to happen. You need to learn how to deceive. It's an actual survival skill for humans. I am not suggesting any of us want children to lie to us, but we should be talking facts here, not preferences. There is a plethora of study on this, what age it starts, how complicated they should be able to lie by what ages, etc.

So yes, all my children have lied, we discuss why and what can happen if people stop believing you, etc. I make up scenarios where I lie to them and they find out and ask how that would feel, etc. I teach my children not to lie unnecessarily by teaching them about their relationships to others and helping them see scenarios where they can understand how much lies can damage how others feel about you.

That said I do not teach my children not to lie. I don't want them not to ever lie. There may be times when they should. Same with hitting. If somehow a lie would in fact be safer for you, then you should lie. My kids have even seen me do this. I had a man come to the door that made me very uncomfortable after I opened the door, so I told him to wait there while I went to get my husband. My husband wasn't home. When I came back, he was gone, which makes me no less sure of his actual intentions that day. Lying is a life skill. It shouldn't be used as a weapon against people you love or as a way to cheat others, etc, but it isn't all bad. We are capable of deception for good reason. It falls in with all forms of deception. A place I worked was robbed once, I threw my wedding rings under the counter onto the floor. Guess what? I got to keep them. No one noticed it happen.

So the thing I have taught my kids is that. There is a time and a place for certain skills (like throat punches) and it's not on your siblings, your parents, your friends, it's there so that if you are ever really in need, that can kick in and maybe save your skin. Lying is like that too. It's there if you need it, but it's a skill you should hope you rarely if ever need to use.

And frankly lying can be fun. It's fun to see what you can get away with. So we play games that involve it. We do things like bluffing in cards, and looking up "facts" and then coming together and as a group telling 10 things. At least 3 need to be true, 3 have to be false & the other 4 can be anything (true or false). So then you tell the group your "facts" and they have to guess whether each item is true or false. This helps you hone your lying in a harmless way but more importantly it helps you learn people's tells when lying as well. I don't just want to teach my children to avoid lying, I want to teach them how to spot a lie when it's being told to them.

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    On this note, I recommend the short essay On The Decay Of The Art Of Lying by Mark Twain. – André Paramés Oct 2 '17 at 15:53
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    That game you made up sounds like Two Truths and a Lie, which is a great game to pass some time with friends. The gist of it is basically the same, though with fewer 'facts': Two are true, and one is a lie. It's a bit different -- my strategy is generally to pick two outrageous facts and make up an equally outrageous lie, rather than trying to come up with something convincing -- but the gist of it is the same, and I thought it worth mentioning. – Nic Hartley Oct 3 '17 at 22:52
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    @QPaysTaxes I started it as a part of our homeschooling as it is sort of like extra credit to do your own research to find your interesting "facts" to share. I often let the kids think they fooled me more than they did because at their ages they come up with a lot of facts I do happen to already know, just due to age. I don't want to ruin their enthusiasm for fact finding. – threetimes Oct 5 '17 at 1:39
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    I think it's important to note that very young children may not be able to differentiate between lying for their own safety and lying selfishly. – jmcampbell Oct 6 '17 at 15:29
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    Well I can say, in 5 kids, none of my kids didn't understand the difference between a safety lie and selfish lie by the time they need to know it. I generally do not punish, so I also by default also get a ton of honesty, as they do not fear being truthful, even if they know I will be disappointed. They do not fear that I will withdraw love, impose some painful situation, etc. I merely teach them through it if it happens. Generally I get more honesty that I even want out of them. – threetimes Oct 7 '17 at 7:20

I am not a parent, so I apologize for my perhaps unwanted view on the topic. However, I feel this perspective may clarify a point previously considered.

A comment in Joe's answer was lashing out at the proposed method because it "treated children like animals instead of people". In that answer the suggested method is to talk to the child and let her understand why her action will lead to other possible unwanted consequences. Since talking may be a bit complicated towards animals, and since I raised a young cat a few years ago, I was really surprised by the comment.

My first mistake when the cat begun scratching the couch or breaking things (by pushing them to the floor) was shouting. She quickly learned to do that when I was not in plain sight (sorry, I am indeed comparing children to animals, they do seem to act similarly at young ages). The difference is, I could not talk to her and demonstrate why I considered that an unwanted action, so naturally, she became good at deceiving.

However, when I changed tactics and closed her access to the room with the irresistible objects for long periods of time, she then realized that accessing that room was a privilege. There were so many "beautiful" things there to explore that scratching the couch, although irresistible, was not worth doing it.

TL;DR Realizing that deceit is a way to temporarily get what one wants, is perhaps an almost inevitable step, realizing that in the long run it may not be the best tactic, is the second step, understanding that the desired thing/action is not truly satisfactory is the ultimate step.

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    Animal psychology and child psychology are very similar in some aspects. You can talk to the child and they will (probably) understand, and you need to accomodate their future development, so the two fields are not identical. But when it comes to their ability to read (possibly mixed) signals, and to play the game of action vs. punishment / reward, they are almost indistinguishable in my opinion. (I am not a parent, but I have two much younger siblings that I watched grow up, and I know quite a bit about dogs, so that's my two cents.) – Arthur Oct 4 '17 at 6:50
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    "Having a child is like having a dog that slowly learns to talk" – deworde Oct 4 '17 at 10:23
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    Surely child-raising is the art of turning an animal into a human? – RedSonja Oct 4 '17 at 11:56
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    I have heard people say they will not use a harness with a child (aged 2) because "children are not dogs". I always say "you are right, I could train a dog not to run into traffic. I have never been able to train that to a 2 year old so far. I wonder why so many people even bother to harness their dogs." ;) – threetimes Oct 5 '17 at 1:44
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    Children are animals, as we all are. Humans are merely highly evolved apes, sometimes it pays to remember that. All mammals (at the least) follow the same methods of learning, what psychology calls classical conditioning (learning by association of stimuli) and operant conditioning (reward and punishment). (I studied psychology for a year at college before giving it up.) – Pharap Oct 5 '17 at 2:08

Why if your sure she did something are you asking her? Why are you setting her up to lie to you? Start there, tell her you know she did it first and don't set the stage for her to lie.

  • We don't know she's lying; she knows she's not allowed to do something, she waits until we're not around, hence why we have to ask – MrDuk Sep 29 '17 at 17:01
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    This is still good advice. Minimize the invitation to tell you a lie. If you don't trust her not to do something she's not allowed to do, don't "not be around" and then ask her later. Be around, she needs you to supervise. – Beanluc Oct 2 '17 at 22:24
  • What if she didn't do it? – nobalG Oct 3 '17 at 6:43
  • @Beanluc - that's a tough ask when she's at Kindergarten for 6 hours a day and I'm at work. – MrDuk Oct 3 '17 at 19:29
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    Fine @MrDuk, I get it - the more important point really was not setting her up to lie. If you know she has opportunity to do things she's not allowed, and you know she'll do them anyway, don't even bother asking her whether she did it or not. Hang in there, it will get better. – Beanluc Oct 3 '17 at 19:40

Tell them the expectations while being praiseful. Sound sure to them, and also let them know you trust them to do the right thing.

  1. Praise or empathy
  2. Identify problem
  3. Identify expectation
  4. Rationale of expectation
  5. Check for understanding
  6. Tell consequence (if necessary)
  7. Praise of empathy

José, I really like your paintings. It looks like some paint got on the walls and we left a big mess at the table. We expect everyone to keep the paint on the paper and clean up when we're done using something, otherwise we might stain the walls or loose our painting tools. Cool? Stay creative, José, we love you!

You're not really claiming specifically they did something wrong, instead you're walking through expectations with each other and making sure everyone agrees.

Maybe you can take this approach meta:

Amelia, we love how much your vocabulary and communication has grown lately. Communication holds a lot of power, and we expect each other to be honest and truthful when we talk, otherwise we begin to loose trust and people will not want to be around us or talk to us. Does that make sense? We love your energy!

Good luck, man!

I have several suggestions, based on my own experience with my son, books I've read, and parenting classes I've taken:

  • Be careful to avoid creating incentives for her to learn to lie better. It's a mistake to end up in the game of information control and leakage, unless you're ready to train her for a future career in spying and subterfuge. Keep close watch on this. It's a nasty trap to fall into that feels like progress because you catch your child in lies less often, but in fact this can drive the lying into more sophisticated expression, or can drive it underground, there to fester and grow secretly in the heart. The heart issue is more important than outward behavior.

  • Based on what I've read in the book "Nurture Shock", children lie in order to avoid getting in trouble and in order to please their parents. Additionally, the kind of authority structures under which kids operate can affect their lying. Parental systems with too much control or too little control (authoritarian and permissive) encourage children to lie more. The system that encourages children to lie the least is one that has a few overarching iron-clad rules, but lots of freedom within those rules. Children have to have a reason to not lie, so if telling the truth won't change anything, why not lie? Make sure there is plenty of freedom and choice, but with firm limits at some point that are enforced.

  • Focus on telling your child what you will do, and what you will allow (rather than on her and her behavior). For example (I don't have a good example about lying but here's one you could get inspiration from), instead of saying "you won't get any dessert if you don't eat your vegetables" say "all children who eat their vegetables will get some dessert". This framing changes you away from being the enemy (the person who won't give me what I want) into an ally (the person who helps me achieve what I want). Teaching your child through naturally-apprehended consequences to see her own behavior as her enemy rather than you is crucial to helping her become a healthy and well-adjusted adult. A power struggle is never going to work.

  • Connect her lying to negative outcomes by showing how your resulting lack of trust in her rebounds to her detriment. Try to do this by showing rather than telling (though tell if you must). For example, instead of telling "since you lied to me last week I can't trust you now" there may be a way to show this, closer to "I really want to do this, but how do I know that nothing bad will happen?" I've heard a related technique called fuzzy mirroring. When we hold up a clear mirror to someone, their ego can get in the way, and they process our intent to show them the mirror as a principal feature of the information, which can completely change it. When we manage to display a fuzzy mirror to someone (such that they can see their own problem but are no longer 100% cognizant that we wanted them to see it) it slips past the ego more successfully. This is the difference between telling and showing.

  • Focus on building relationship with her. What are your long-term goals? Do you want to have a relationship of trust, openness, emotional intimacy, and so on? Consider everything in terms of this goal. Express these goals to your daughter often. Show how her lying hurts you personally, not just that she has done something objectively wrong (though show that too). Your expressed emotions about how she's hurting your relationship with her can be very effective. I'm not talking about using emotional blackmail—"obey or I will feel bad at you"—so avoid that like the plague. But it is appropriate to be a whole person, so that when someone you love and want to trust violates your trust, you are hurt.

There are a lot of really good answers on here already so I don't really know if I'll be adding anything. We dealt with this recently with our oldest who just turned 7.

For the most part,I was a good kid. I didn't lie to my parents because I knew the consequences of lying would always be worse than if I told the truth. Also, I usually didn't care when my parents were angry. Granted, yes, it was scary sometimes, but it was always much worse when they were disappointed. Lying was something that always made them disappointed rather than angry.

Create an environment where telling the truth is encouraged. As stated, make the consequences for lying worse than the consequences of telling the truth. Kids make mistakes so let them. If they forgot to wipe down the table after you told them too, don't blow up at them because next time you'll find a forgotten, unwiped table along with a kid lying that they did wipe it down. If they broke something, show them how to fix it and instruct them on how to avoid breaking it again. This avoids the desire to lie about not breaking something in the future.

Along with that, I think an important lesson I learned from one of my senior leaders in the military applies. We had weekly room inspections and 90% of the military members under me did what they were supposed to do. Every now and then I would get lax in checking their rooms prior to inspection. One time, one failed miserably. Our senior leader didn't get mad at those charged with doing the preinspections. He simply told us to "inspect what you expect" and to do it continuously.

A house certainly shouldn't be run like the military. That's not the point I am trying to make but I believe the lesson applies the same. Until they've built up enough trust to be autonomous in their daily requirements, inspect the things that you expect from them. Let them see you doing it. This avoids any conflict within them to think "well I'll just lie about it because they aren't going to check".

I think, by following these things, we've gotten better at dealing with our oldest. Either that or he's just gotten really good at lying (joke).

You can't guarantee your child will be "a liar" or "not a liar" any which way just based on these interactions. Children will continue to learn the value of lying to avoid trouble in school, with friends and peer pressure, etc. There are many key developmental social stages that your daughter will go through, and @ChrisSunami's answer is definitely wise.

The biggest key to your daughter's continued policy of truth (or lack thereof) may be her need to lie to feel safe. If her telling the truth ends up in a very scary situation, she will do everything it takes to lie her way through it, whatever necessary to be sure she avoids that outcome. She may continue to lie whenever things get scary in life as a leftover emotional survival tactic of sorts.

I can't speak on a shift in parenting for you, as I don't presume to know your parenting style. I won't break the dead man's rule, either. If you show her with consistent calm that lying, be it about mischief or what her mom actually said, is not acceptable ("Nah; we don't do that") and then redirect away from the topic, she will feel much more at ease with being truthful in the future.

I've read an advice to often explain to your child to tell the truth and why it is better to tell the truth. For example while family is having a lunch or dinner.

Important is not to say "do not lie" but say "tell the truth". Also do not make her feel guilty or something.

As far as I understood, that is to avoid subconscious tendencies to do the forbidden things and some other psychological reasons.

protected by Rory Alsop Sep 30 '17 at 13:55

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