Children younger than age 6 often have difficulty telling the difference between reality and fantasy. There is often an uncertain boundary between truth and fiction. It is also true that the new technologies that can manipulate video and sounds can make determining what truth is to be very difficult. While there is not a magical time that children can clearly tell the truth from fantasy usually after age 6 a child knows when they are lying and that they are being deceitful.
Lying shows that a child or an adult is aware that they have done something wrong. Lying is used to protect themselves from disapproval and disappointment of those important to them. Sometimes children lie when they feel under significant stress to meet impossible demands or are struggling in school. Lying needs to be understood in relation to surrounding events.
The predominant religions of our world, (Buddhism, Judeo-Christian, Hinduism, Islam), state that lying is wrong. In fact it is one of the Ten Commandments, is in the Quran, and is in Buddhist and Hindu texts. There is a centuries old debate about “white lies” by many great thinkers whose opinion range from all lies are wrong to there are some exceptions to protect or help others.
If a child is forbidden to lie but witness their parents telling “white lies” to distort the truth for their parents’ convenience, it is confusing. Think about what excuses are used when arriving late for school, being stopped for speeding, or not getting an assignment completed. Stretching the truth is common.
Children learn by example. Parents know that children mimic their words and their behaviors. They also learn that there are things that are hard to understand and need some thoughtful discussion. After all philosophers are still debating the wrongness of lies.
If a parent discovers that a child has lied they should tell them that they are aware that they are not telling the truth. Harsh punishment is usually not very effective. It is suggested in an article in healthychildren.org that the parent tell their child that they would like to have them only tell them the truth and that they, the parent, will tell them the truth. Also that they will get in much less trouble if they tell the truth instead of lying.
The Harvard Graduate School of Education has a paper on Raising Caring, Respectful, Ethical Children. One quote is the following: “Children learn ethical values and behaviors by watching our actions and the actions of other adults they respect. Children will listen to our teaching when we walk the talk.”
A child with a history of chronic lying should be seen by a mental health professional. Chronic liars often have had difficulty establishing a true conscience that tell right from wrong. They may also have other behaviors that are harmful and socially inappropriate that can interfere with school and relationships.
by Sally Robinson, MD Clinical Professor
Keeping Kids Healthy
UTMB Pediatrics - Pediatric Primary Care
UTMB After Hours Urgent Care