Why Do Kids Lie?
Lying. We ask our kids if they’ve washed their hands, and they say yes even though we know they haven’t moved from the couch. We see evidence of chocolate on their face as they deny they’ve gone into the snack bin. We see our older child knock over his sister’s tower only for him to come running to us yelling, “It wasn’t me! It just fell down!”
It is infuriating when we watch our child deny something we know to be true. These reactions come to mind as a parent: How disrespectful!; Are you trying to pull one over me?; Do you think I was born yesterday?
So why do kids lie? If we suspend our judgment and feelings and instead zoom out and become curious, lying becomes kind of fascinating, right? We can have a child who essentially knows that we know the truth… and the child will still maintain a different story. There’s something very interesting going on.
Here’s what’s happening: Attachment.
Attachment is an evolutionary mechanism to protect children. Staying close to parents ensures biological survival and psychological security – both necessary for a child to grow and thrive.
Through the mechanism of attachment, children learn and then maximize what brings their parents CLOSER through love, validation, non-judgmental curiosity, and empathy; they also learn and then avoid what makes their parents more distant through criticism, ignoring, being sent away, and rage.
Here’s how this relates to lying: If children believe that their parents will react to the truth with some combination of anger, judgment, and punishment (all signs of distance), they lie to preserve attachment. If children believe that parents will react to the truth with concern, inquiry, and an understanding that there’s a goodness underneath a “bad behavior,” they will be honest all day, every day.
For kids to be honest, truth must increase connection and closeness. This is not to say that there can’t also be signs of disappointment or frustration – of course there can! – but if these aren’t combined with messages of connection, love, and understanding, then lying is more adaptive to a child than telling the truth. And kids cannot fight the evolutionary mechanisms designed to protect them.
For many parents, lying is one of the toughest situations to reframe. I get it. It feels wrong to let our kids “get away” with lying. Here’s a thought: often in relationships, we have a choice to be right or stay connected… but not both. I’m urging parents to try to prioritize connection. I think you’ll be amazed at the truth-telling that follows.
Try This at Home:
Once kids trust that you’re more interested in the feelings and struggles underneath their behaviors, truth-telling becomes more natural. The best times to “work on lying” come, ironically, at the moment of your child’s lie. If you can respond with connection and interest, your child will – over time – become less and less likely to lie to you. Practically, this means that parents need to resist the understandable urge to “be right” (I know this is so hard!) and to instead connect to the feelings that motivated the behavior in the first place.
Here are some examples of responses to lies that increase trust and connection and decrease the likelihood of lying in the future:
Lie: “I didn’t knock over the tower! It just fell!”
Response: “Well, if someone, not you, but someone did push down a tower… I think I’d understand. Having a brother can feel hard. Sharing is hard. If the knocking down ever did happen, I might be upset but I’d definitely first give a hug and then try to understand and help. If you happen to want a hug right now, I’d love to give you one.”
Lie: “I did all my work already!”
Response: “Hm… well, I got an email that some work is missing. It’s ok. You’re not in trouble. You must have been worried that I wouldn’t get it, that I’d judge without listening. I know that Zoom school feels so different. Doing your work must feel so different. Maybe we can talk about it. I promise, no lecture. I want to listen and understand.”