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Why Kids Lie

By Dr. Alyaa Gad

 

Kids aren’t born knowing that lying is bad. It’s something they have to figure out. They gradually understand and learn that  there are social rules, mainly by watching us adults constantly, to see what they are supposed to do, and do the same. Being honest, and understanding the concept of lying are things that kids grow to aquire.

Children go through cognitive and bahvioral phases:

  • From birth to 3, they find themselves in a confusing world. What seems to us like “lies” are either mistakes or an expression of fear. Their reaction is often influnecd by our tone of voice. “Did you break the glass?” said angrily is likely to get a “Not me” response. The angry tone in the adult’s question scares them. They just want to make things feel safe again by “lying”.
  • Children from ages 3 to 7 are in the phase where they can’t really tell the difference between fantasy and reality. They often live in their fantasy worlds where they have imaginary friends who might have done things! We don’t want to shut down their creativity, but we do want to help them sort out when it’s appropriate to tell tall tales and when it’s not. We should not get angry at them for telling us that a green crocodile at the cookie. A better idea would be to go along with the story and go look for that crocodile under the bed, then see how the story develops from there. Use humor at this phase.
  • From ages 5 to 10, kids gradually develop an understanding of what it means to lie. If they’ve been raised in a home and neighborhood and school where there are clear rules about the importance of telling the truth, they will do their best to tell the truth. They want to be “big kids”. Encourgae their sense of trust and self-confidence, and they will behave without lying.
  • Over 10? They know perfectly well when they are stretching the truth or outright lying.

Other reasons for lying: Social issues overlap with developmental ones. The older kids get, the more likely one or more of these reasons factors in:

  • Mistakes. Sometimes kids lie without thinking and then dig themselves in deeper.  If you sense that your child is lying, do not show extreme anger or it will get worse.
  • Fear.   When the adults in a kid’s life are dangerous (violent, irrational, or overpunishing), kids get so worried about the consequences to fessing up to a misdemeanor they try to avoid it altogether.
  • To get out of doing something they don’t want to do.  They don’t like doing math, and they claim to have finished their math homeowork.
  • Not understanding when it’s socially appropriate to lie and when it isn’t. They don’t know why we lie about social compliments for example. They get confused.
  • As a way to fit in. They lie to win peer approval. They lie to cover for each other and cover their tracks when they’ve done something they shouldn’t.
  • Parental limits that are too strict. When parents won’t allow them to gain some independence, teens almost have to be devious to grow normally.
  • They inevitably try out what they’ve observed at home and are often stunned when parents don’t see them as simply doing as the adults do.
  • An indication of an emerging mental illness like conduct disorder or pathological lying. Usually there is more than one symptom besides the lying. These are the kids who often become so adept at it, they lie whether they need to or not. It’s a reflex, not a considered manipulation.
Alyaa Gad is an Egyptian medical doctor, graduated at the Faculty of Medicine, Ain Shams University, Cairo. After having worked with UNICEF in the healthcare-deprived areas of Upper Egypt, Alyaa decided to study health education in The Netherlands. She worked as a medical researcher and lecturer at several Dutch institutes, before settling down in Switzerland. She currently works in a general medicine clinic. In her free time, she works as an abstract artist in her studio. Alyaa is married and has two sons.

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