37 - 39 Months

Why does my child lie and what can I do about it?

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You: “did you wash your hands?”

Your 3-year-old with sticky hands: “yes” 🙃

Chances are, you’ve seen some version of lying from your child. At first they didn’t have the intent—or the ability—to deceive anyone. Their lies were like pretend play: If they said, “I have a kitty” when they didn’t, it may have been their way of saying they wanted a cat.

A seminal study on lying shows that now at age 3, your child may be learning how to deceive someone on purpose.

So what does lying look like for your child, and what does it mean? 

Lying is not malicious  

Your three-year-old is not lying to disrespect you or hurt anyone’s feelings. A 2012 study from the Child Development Journal found that “the most common and earliest lies children tell tend to conceal misdeeds.” 

Telling a lie requires the cognitive ability to hold a truth in one’s mind while making the conscious decision to express something different. Your child is testing how the people in their life will react to a lie: what will happen if I say I didn’t eat the cookie? What will happen if I say I washed my hands but I actually didn’t?

At this age, saying something that isn’t true (while knowing it isn’t) involves a number of complex skills:

  • Empathy. Your child needs to understand, or at least guess, how their lie is going to affect someone.
  • Executive function skills. Lying requires maintaining focus, planning ahead of time, and impulse control.
  • Theory of mind. In order to tell a lie, your child needs to understand that the person they’re speaking to has different thoughts and knowledge than they do.

What to do when your child lies

Just because lying is linked to your child’s growing intelligence doesn’t mean we want them to keep doing it. Consider the following responses when your child lies:

  • Try to prevent the lie in the first place by avoiding asking questions you know the answer to. If you know your child didn’t wash their hands after using the bathroom, you can say: “It looks like your hands are completely dry. Can I help you wash them?”
  • Point out what you notice and define what a lie is: “you have part of a cookie in your hand, and I see crumbs on your face. When you say you didn’t do something but you did, that’s called a lie.”
  • Explain how telling the truth helps you fix a mistake: “I need to know if you peed on the carpet, so we can work together to clean this wet spot up.”
  • Acknowledge your child when they tell the truth about a mistake they made: “thank you for telling the truth.”
  • Make it safe to be honest, even after your child has told a lie. Studies have shown that harsh punishment not only doesn’t deter lying, it can make children more adept at it. A quick correction is more likely to stick with your child than a long lecture.

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Posted in: 37 - 39 Months, Empathy, Executive Function, Cognitive Development, Independence, Child Development

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