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Lying or Pretending?

Around age three, when children begin to understand their parents may not know what they did or didn’t do, your precious little angel may begin to tell you ‘big whoppers’: “Baby Jack made that mess” or, “I played with a dinosaur today and rode on its back.” Before you panic, thinking your child is destined for a life of crime, let’s look at why children lie, when children begin to lie, and how to teach children to tell the truth.

Why children lie

Children tell lies for a variety of reasons: They’re afraid of getting into trouble, they’re seeking attention, they’re testing boundaries, or they’re enjoying a good story and haven’t yet learned the distinction between fantasy and real life.

If your child makes a big mess or breaks a family rule, they may be afraid of the consequences. You need to discern whether their infraction was intentional or a normal childhood accident, like spilling a glass of milk. When you see your child’s lie was meant to cover up a normal accident, reassure your child that everyone makes mistakes and then work together to clean up the spill. If your child’s lie was meant to cover up breaking a family rule, set a consequence in line with the infraction, like forgoing play with a favorite toy for the day. Setting reasonable consequences builds trust yet reinforces the value of rules and truth-telling. When consequences involve physical punishment, your child is more likely to lie to avoid physical pain.

Some of your child’s lies are about pretending. Wouldn’t it be fun to have an imaginary friend or fly to the moon and back? This is normal childhood behavior and part of your child’s growth and development. Young children are learning the difference between right and wrong and need the experience to tell the difference between truthfulness and lying. Plus, adults in their life read them stories filled with creativity, pretending, and magical acts, so kids need the experience and practice in separating fun, creative fantasy from everyday life.

When children begin to lie

Around age three, children begin to experiment with telling fibs when their language is developed enough to express their thoughts clearly. They are experimenting with the line between fact and fantasy. They understand they may displease adults with some of their behavior and want to avoid getting into trouble.

From ages four to six, children can tell more sophisticated lies. However, when questioned about the circumstances, most children will eventually relent and tell the truth.

As children grow older, they learn they can tell a lie and not get caught. They’ve learned about how other people think, and they know when a fabrication is believable - that’s why it’s important for you to take the time to teach your child honesty as a family value starting from babyhood.

Whenever your child tells you an untruth, view it as a teachable moment. For example, if your child shares with you a creative idea as fact, “My doll says she is hungry now,” you have the opportunity to teach your child, “It would be fun if your doll could talk, wouldn’t it?” If your child makes a mess and they tell you a fib, “The dog spilled the juice,” you could say to your child, “It’s okay if you accidently spilled your juice. We all spill. Let’s clean up the mess together.”

When your child lies to cover up a broken family rule, “I didn’t hit my brother,” a fair, reasonable consequence should be imposed to set a boundary, “We don’t hit each other, and our family tells the truth.”

How to teach children truth-telling

Everyday family life offers countless opportunities to mold and shape your child’s moral code.

Here are some ways to teach your child to be a truth-teller:

Be a good role model. You can talk about being honest, but if your child hears you tell a lie, they will know you don’t mean it. Even small fibs you tell your child are confusing to them because they are trying to navigate the rules of the family home. 

Notice and encourage whenever truth is told. In real-life situations and when watching TV, movies, etc., there are opportunities for you to notice and point out to your child who is telling the truth and who isn’t, “Oh, dear, that character is telling a lie. What will happen now?” When your child tells the truth, compliment them or pat them on the back. It’s important to applaud truth-telling.

Help children understand the difference between truth and fantasy. Enjoy fantasy tales with your child but talk about reality. “It would be fun if animals could talk, but it’s make-believe.”

Tell your child you know they can do the right thing. Children need to hear praise and encouragement. Tell your child, “I know you can do the right thing” and, “I know you can make the right choices.”

Talk about the importance of honesty. “When people don’t tell the truth, they feel bad. They may be worried or feel guilty. It’s better to tell the truth.”

Play games and do activities that promote honesty. Draw a card with a sentence written on it. Read it aloud for everyone to hear. Is it real-life or fantasy? Or role-play with puppets that either tell the truth or lie.

Avoid tempting your child to lie. Explosive anger or asking, “Who did that?” will tempt your child to lie to avoid trouble. Whenever possible, stay calm and get to the bottom of the problem. You want your child to trust you enough to tell you the truth in the event they’re in a dangerous or abusive situation. Children must know it’s safe to admit a problem to an adult.

Share childhood memories that help teach honesty. Kids love to hear stories of their parents as young children. Tell them how you learned to tell the truth and resist lying. Share hard lessons learned.

Read books that lead to discussion about truth and lies. We all know about the boy who cried wolf. Take the time to find stories that teach the importance of telling the truth. Some good children’s books about telling the truth are The Honest-to-Goodness Truth by Patricia McKissack, What Should Danny Do? School Day by Ganit and Adir Levy, and Scout’s Honor: A Kid’s Book about Lying and Telling the Truth by Tiffany Obeng.

Of course, you want your child to thrive as a responsible citizen. You want them to be a person of character and moral goodness. Honesty is a character trait that takes some work to instil. It needs to be held up and valued in everyday life. And the value of creativity and fantasy has its place in life, but the difference between fantasy and reality needs to be taught. An occasional fib is a normal part of kids’ lives and for most kids, lying doesn’t become a habit. With patient teaching and understanding, your child will master truthfulness.

Jan Pierce, M.Ed., is a retired teacher and author of Homegrown Readers and Homegrown Family Fun. Find her at


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