How do I keep my son from lying?
Most parents will catch their young children in a lie, but there’s no cause for worry. Lying is an important developmental milestone. Learn best practices for helping your child overcome lying and understanding the difference between reality and fantasy from CareNectar expert Shenley Seabrook.
My son is about to turn 4, and we’ve noticed that he’s recently started lying pretty regularly. He doesn’t lie about big things or anything that will get him into trouble. They are small lies—such as telling his dad we went to a different park instead of the one we typically go to. Or that we played a different game than the one we actually played. How should we approach this situation? Is this a developmental stage typical for all young children, or should we be concerned? We’d like to nip it in the bud so that he doesn’t start lying about bigger things in the future.
Thank you for your question—it’s something many parents face. I hope to ease any concerns because lying is indeed developmentally typical for children this age. Around this time, children learn that they can manipulate the truth to get what they want or to get out of trouble, and even simply to get a reaction or attention they are seeking. As an important milestone in children’s cognitive development, lying allows children to show their understanding that people have different beliefs that might not align with reality, rather beliefs can reflect varying experiences.
The trick to curbing lying behavior is to figure out the purpose of his lies. In other words, what is he trying to gain from lying? In the examples you provided, it seems as though he is lying to “try out” or “practice” the behavior to see what types of untruths he can get away with. For lies that are attention-seeking, it may be best to ignore rather than reprimand with negative attention.
I also suggest having discussions about reality versus fantasy. Explain to your son what it means to talk about real and true events and how it is different from talking about fantasy or pretend events. This may be an ongoing conversation, and when he is ready, ask your son to explain it back to you so you can be sure he understands. To help him learn the difference between the two, you can also play a game in which he has to tell you if something you say is real or fantasy. For example, say to your son, “Today I rode home from work on a dragon!” He can then tell you if that is real or a fantasy. Then, have him come up with his own fantasy statements and real statements to practice. This is also a great game to play as you read a book or watch a movie together.
While your son at this age is likely not lying to intentionally deceive, you can still have a follow-up conversation on why lying is wrong. This conversation should include comments about how lying makes it difficult for people to trust us or believe what we say, or could potentially hurt or upset our friends and family. You can use specific examples: “We had a lot of fun playing Uno yesterday, but you told Daddy we played Candyland, which was a lie. Next time you tell Daddy we played a certain game, it might be hard for him to believe you.” Then, give him an example of what he can do instead of telling a lie. This can sound like: “You could tell Daddy that we played Uno, but you really wanted to play Candyland instead.”
Here are some helpful books you and your son might enjoy on lying and honesty.
- David Gets in Trouble, by David Shannon (also available in Spanish and Korean)
- The Lying King, by Alex Beard
- Lying Up A Storm, by Julia Cook
- The Honest-to-Goodness Truth, by Patricia McKissack
I’m also sharing a great TedTalk clip discussing children’s perceptions of reality and how it changes as they grow. Take a look!
I hope this helps as you navigate your child’s interpretations with the truth, and remember, the CareNectar team is available to answer any additional questions you have.
Meet The Expert
Shenley Seabrook is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who works primarily with children and adolescents in a private practice setting. She is also a foster parent and lives with her husband and daughter in Indiana. Shenley recently wrote her first children’s book, We Have the Same Heart, which celebrates diversity, inclusion, and community service.