What to do about a lying child? Talk amongst yourselves.

Here's a sticky one. Sharon asks:

I need some help. Our six year old has taken on an unattractive trait. He likes to make things up and does not come clean afterwards. Essentially, he is lying.

Example #1: He told his teacher that he did not have a lunch the other day. I made him a lunch but he decided that he didn't want to eat it. His teacher knows that I am good about sending lunch so she suspected he was lying. He told me the truth and then I took him to apologize to his teacher.

Example #2: I asked him if he tried anything new at Souplantation. He said he tried nuts on his ice cream. Later I find out that he did not. This one is not a big deal but he still lied and never told the truth.

I need some help with a logical and immediate consequence for lying. I also need help with communicating to him the importance of telling the truth and being honest. Joking is fine but you must come clean. We told him the story of the boy who cried wolf. He wanted to know more about the wolf. We decided that the next time this happens he will have to write sentences about what he did (practice writing) and he gets extra chores around the house (community service). Someone out there must have some good advice. Can we talk?

Anyone with experience to share?


  1. amy says

    My daughter is only 3, so I haven’t experienced this problem, but Sharon’s situation reminded me of a post I read at Owlhaven. (I hope it’s okay with her if I link to the post.)


    I’m not sure how much Owlhaven’s insight will help here since Sharon is dealing with a single child in the examples (rather than two), but it is something I plan to at least consider once my little one gets to this stage.

    Can’t wait to hear the other helpful hints!

  2. hedra says

    That was me as a child. By the way, lying at this age is normal, age-appropriate behavior, and kids who are facile liars at this age become socially adept adults later (they tend to be much smoother and less obvious with their white lies, and more adept at determining what phrasing will get you which responses). So, that reassurance in there, my thoughts:

    1) My parents just bribed me. They tried being disappointed in me, they tried punishing me, they told me about the wolf, bought me the book, explained that I’d lose friends, and on and on and on, and still the benefits of lying for me outweighed the punishments – I could do what I liked, and not be forced into compliance I didn’t want to bother with, without getting caught (okay, often enough to make it worth a shot). So they finally bribed me. I got cash money for going a certain period of time without lying. I think it was two or three weeks, and I got a WHOLE DOLLAR! Their point was that this was a behavior that was under my full control, and that it wasn’t a power to be used lightly. I understood consequences, but consequences weren’t enough to make me think BEFORE I acted, only make me uncomfortable afterwards.

    2) Parental disappointment. Boy that one works with my second, who is the most facile liar I’ve ever met. Ooooh, is he smooth (and he’s also 5 1/2). He figures out what he wants as a result, calculates what will be a realistic cover, and presents it. He finds it funny to be caught, but not so funny to have me look at him sadly.

    3) Reward truth-telling, and don’t get too excited over the lying. Even when we’re disappointed with B for lying, the thing I lean on is that if you just ask for what you want, or just tell me what happened, I will get down on your level, look you in the eye, give you a hug, really connect. Maybe not throw a huge party, but connect-connect-connect. And when you lie, you get disappointment, but not dramatic, and with minimal connection. Lying draw attention, because it scares the bejeezus out of us. It becomes a huge what-if scenario, with wolves everywhere. But that just becomes interesting and exciting, which is its own reward. So, be a bit disconnected on the punishment side, and very direct, serious, engaged, and ‘in there’ on the positives.

    The combination of 2 and 3 for us has meant that while B will still lie to try to get what he wants, he doesn’t put nearly the effort into it as he used to, and BOY when there’s a potential disaster/issue does he snap to the truth instantly (without even going for the lie at all). He broke something, he fesses up instantly. As a result, we reward him for truth-telling, we help him, we engage, we thank him for helping us help solve the problem with him, etc. I think that’s very much in tune with the Stu-hack (the problem is the problem, the kid is not the problem).

    You can also enlist their assistance in solving it. My parents did me that honor with the bribery thing. They said they were at their wits end, they didn’t know what to try, could I help. I don’t recall if the money was my idea, but I do recall being INVESTED in the process of learning I could live without lying, because they’d squatted down at eye level in front of me and talked with me seriously about it. Not lectured, but talked WITH me. Asked me for my ideas. Considered what I said seriously.

    Oh, and by the way, that asking them to help find the solution is perfect at this age – they’re needing respect, and their brains are very flexible and creative, and they’re developing a good assessment of their own reward systems – and they really do play along better if they came up with the idea or helped to come up with the idea.

    Good luck! I’m sure there are other ways of handling it (like finding the core reason for the lies and finding another solution to those problems, maybe), but those are my front line answers.

  3. Gila from the UK says

    No help to offer but empathy to give; will look out for further posting on this.

    It must be an age thing. My 6-year-old is actually a really well-behaved little girl who already has strong morals…. and yet we have had exactly similar experiences. I have floundered when talking to her about it as she doesn’t seem to fully understand what she’s done. I have mentioned trust and how I can’t trust what she says if she starts to tell fibs but have struggled when searching for the best way forward on this relatively upsetting development. Actually, Husband and I call them “Grace’s Tall Tales” sometimes to lighten the mood a little….

  4. Kathy says

    Is he trying out creative impulses? Maybe you could help him make up a story, write it down, and even illustrate it if he likes to draw or cut out pictures from magazines.

    Then you can explain to him that the things in his book didn’t really happen, but that it’s fun to “what if” them. Contrast this with real life, when it’s important to tell the truth so that you, his teacher, his friends, etc. know they can trust what he says. Tell him that if he thinks of an idea that’s not true but that he thinks is fun, you’ll help him make another book.

    This might help him indulge his imagination and have fun, but create a boundary between the appropriateness of truth and prevarication.

    Good luck!

  5. Anonymouse says

    Unsolicited advice:

    PLEASE rethink your punishments. Both of those things are things you want your child to do willingly, now and in the future. Using them as punishment will only engender poor feelings toward those activities.

    I’d suggest removal of a desired thing/activity, instead, if you decide to go the punishment route.

  6. michaele says

    I will second hedra’s advice. I also agree with Anonymouse. When I was younger, my mother used writing my name, address, and phone number (all info a child should know, and writing it is very effective), but every time I filled out an application for anything when I was older, I felt uneasy.

    But I digress. The punishment must be customized to fit the child, of course. But I’ve found with my now 7 year old son, that if the punishment for lying is worse than the punishment for doing something that gets you in trouble, it seems to be more effective. He’s more likely to come clean to avoid the less desired result. Of course, unlike this situation, he generally lied to cover things up, but I think the realization of how much we disapprove of lying has carried over into the general act of it.

  7. William says

    I ran into a similar situation with my nephew, who was staying with us for a while when he was 4. He often would tell lies at random, not for any discernible gain, but just for the fun of it. After a while it became clear most of the stories were intended to make him look better in our eyes, he often told stories about him doing something good or of other people doing something bad. Both were most likely due to his issues he had, and still has, with self-esteem and his need for acceptance.
    What we worked out was that he could tell stories, except making up negative things about other people, but when I asked him “Thats a good story, but did that really happen?” he had to be honest and say it was a story. That way he could express himself but he acknowledged the difference between the story and reality. And he knew that I knew it too. If he didnt admit to the fabrication then I would take away something, usually something simple like no cartoons before bed ( we used to let him watch one old Disney short, 5 minutes or so just before bed and story time.) If he made up negative things about other people, then he lost something more significant. I think I canceled a zoo trip once because of this issue.

    Good luck, and while I think its mostly a phase, you can definitely encourage creativity while still discouraging deception.

  8. oddharmonic says

    I agree that it’s an age-appropriate behavior.

    When we discussed telling the truth with my Cub Scout den (6 and 7 year olds), one of the resources we used was The Not Truthful Cure story in ‘Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s Farm’. It’s old-fashioned, but it helped the kids see why someone might not tell the truth and encourage truthfulness.

    A more direct approach to dealing with lying is discussed in chapter 5 of “It’s So Much Work To Be Your Friend” by Richard LaVoie (ISBN 0743254635).

    LaVoie suggests:
    – offering the child a chance to retract the lie without a consequence;
    – giving the child a few moment to reflect before answering an incriminating question;
    – having a sincere and calm discussion about lying, emphasizing that lying is socially unacceptable and the behavior has a negative impact upon trust in a relationship; and
    – always praising and reinforcing a child when they tell the truth.

    LaVoie’s suggestions really helped us earlier this year when my daughter told a police officer that Daddy hits her all the time. Under the implication of progressing to a child services investigation, she got to have sincere discussions about telling the truth with her teacher, the school behavioral specialist (at my request), and with a family friend that’s worked in early intervention social work. (The child services investigation never came to bear, but it did have a silver lining in giving us more impetus to make sure the kiddo understood what can happen when someone tells a lie.)

  9. christie says

    It really is a developmental stage (my kids are beginning to do this at FOUR, and I’m quite sure we’ll be stuck here for at least three years), and to some extent kids this age are working on figuring out the difference between fantasy and reality. They don’t fully grasp that the people in the TV aren’t real, either. Sometimes (for example, if they say they already put dishes in the dishwasher, when said dishes are in plain sight on the table) I’ll ask, “Is that the thing you wish had happened/the choice you wish you’d made, or what REALLY happened?” This opens up a conversation about responsibilities and (more importantly at this stage, IMO) about what is really true and how we can actually make things happen.

    I think positioning some of these things as stories, tall tales, imagination, etc, is very important — helps kids learn the difference between harmful lying and beneficial creativity. I don’t know that I’m necessarily GOOD at that, but I do think it’s important. :)

  10. Diane says

    Ok, I don’t know if this is way too deep but I have a 5 yr old son (only child) and last fall we got a puppy. At first my son had died and gone to heaven until he felt that the puppy was getting too much attention. One of my biggest bragging points was that the dog was potty trained. So my son, decided to drop trowel and pee on the carpet. He then ran to the kitchen and started pointing and yelling “bad dog! bad bad dog!” the dog had been sleeping on the kitchen rug. Ethan than said “Mom, Napoleon peed on the stairs!” It was an oscar worthy production and for a moment i believed him until the mother instinct kicked in and I questioned if the dog had even moved. I went over to the carpet and tested the theory- “Ethan this doesnt smell like dog pee, it smells, hmmm- it smells like little boy pee…hmmm” His eyes grew big and he confessed. At that moment i was shocked that my son had to go to such lengths to get my attention, he essentially framed the dog! I guess my point is, i had a mixture of guilt, of appreciation (its funny!), of pride (what a smarty pants), and anger towards my son, but from then on it taught me to try to figure out where the “story” is coming from. A lot of times (not always) its a need for attention. My son has a creative streak which allows for much entertainment, and I do like to keep a journal of his stories while also trying to keep him in touch with reality. It also has taught me that sometimes you need to “play along” a bit in an effort to delve into what’s really up and you do have to outsmart them. It’s a slippery slope and i have had mixed results. Now, when he is lying he usually prompts it with “i’m not lying, fibbing, joking or telling a story!” with his crooked honery smile…Bonus- As a single working mother it provides me with a distraction from taking things too seriously. Often times i get troubled by troubles and lose sight of the joy of parenting. It also allows for a great connection between his father and i.

  11. sarah says

    I completely disagree with rewarding your child if he or she does not lie for a certain amount of time. This seems very backward ethically.
    Anyway, I have been very strict about lying with my 4-year-old. If he tells me a lie, he gets a dab of hot sauce on his tongue. Similar to the washing mouth with soap thing that was done so much when I was growing up, but seems less humiliating to the child. Also, hotsauce is meant to be eaten (small amounts – I did say only a dab) whereas soap is not.
    We also talk about our ultimate authority (in our family, this is the Bible) and what God has to say about lying. Since we believe that Jesus is the ultimate TRUTH, lying needs to be nipped in the bud. And yes, it may be “normal”. I think it’s the normal response for anyone in certain situations, but that does not make it right or something to be understanding or lenient about. Let your child know you mean business about this and he’ll learn to tell the truth early on and save himself some heartache and very uncomfortable situations later in life.

  12. Venomous Kate says

    I think it’s also important to remember to label the behavior, not the child. There’s a world of difference between “That’s a lie!” and “You’re a liar!”

    Having gone through this with my now-teenaged daughter when she was the same age (and my 7 y/o just started it, too), I agree with the suggestion to couple praising a child when s/he is brave about telling the truth and withdrawing something the child desires as a consequence for not telling the truth.

    After all, don’t we as adults know that being honest people generally makes life better? That’s how we teach our kids the same thing.

  13. hedra says

    Um, oops, I forgot to note that *I DID NOT DO THE BRIBE ROUTINE WITH MY KIDS!* Sorry, Sarah. Yes, it worked on me, and I think largely because lying was a habit, and they wanted me to break the HABIT of lying by thinking about it and trying on the front end. Plus I was invested in the results. But buying truth is akin to buying grades, and has its own thorny issues.

    That said, I have a lot more issues with ‘hot saucing’ than I do with a single instance of bribery (I didn’t get a repeat dollar, ya know). Hot saucing is an actionable offense in Virginia, and … well, IMHO, if you can get the same results with a little patience and a little effort, why not do that instead of inflicting pain?

    Granted, if you haven’t been around reading my comments for long, you also probably don’t know that I have a child who developed a feeding disorder in part due to oral trauma. The idea of forcing a painful oral experience on a child for the purposes of punishment just makes me feel ill. I’ve been the orchistrator of plenty of oral traumas on my kids in the name of health (brushing the 2-year-old twins’ teeth seems pretty traumatic to them, maybe even more so than hot saucing would be), but at least there’s no other method to get their teeth clean if they can’t brush well themselves… But inducing trauma for this? (even mild traumas can build up – my son didn’t have any MAJOR HUGE oral traumas, just a variety of smaller ones – and it led to him being unable to properly recognize physical signals from his mouth and stomach. AT ALL. And we’re talking years, and will probably have a lifelong difficulty knowing when/if he’s hungry. It was bad enough knowing that he was so cut off from his mouth and stomach that he could not feel hunger – how basic is that? If I had ever done anything that had contributed… :shudder: )

    Oy. I know hot saucing isn’t uncommon, and that plenty of parents feel they can control it, and beleive that it is appropriate and acceptable. What you can’t control the child’s response (up to and including allergic reactions). It just seems really unnecessary. I’d rather use soap, all in all. Yucky, but not painful. Food item or not, inducing pain is inducing pain.

  14. Hot Wife says

    Thank you, all for your input. It is good food for thought. My son has much improved since a few days ago. He tells me that he did not lie all day and I cheer for him. One day at a time.

  15. jenl says

    The first thing I had to learn with my oldest (I have 4 ages spread between 16 and 2) was that I had to be careful how I asked certain questions so that I was not giving the child an opportunity to lie…for example:
    “Did you break this?” (generates an automatic “no” and then a lie to back that up) became “Tell me how this was broken.” I also avoided the phrase “Don’t ever let me catch you lying.” (because then they try harder to not get caught! Hee) Instead I would say this: “We always tell the truth…no matter what.” And “if you always tell me the truth, especially when you are in trouble, then the consequences will be lighter than if you LIE to get out of trouble.”

    I’ve always given out consequences for not telling the truth. And if I was already passing those out, but then I found out there was an element of “cover up” or lying of any stripe, I would made the consequences more severe. All three of my oldest children seemed to understand this at their own pace (some needed to test this house rule more than others), and my youngest is not quite old enough yet.

    There have been times when my kids (the older ones, now that they are teens/preteens) had some serious “I’ve blown it” moment and came to me to fess up and they remind me…Hey, I’m telling you this now since I know trying to hide it or lie about it is only going to make it worse. Wow. They still got disciplined (privilege removal is my favorite and most effective tactic) but I alway reinforce by saying…had I discovered this on my own or elsewhere, I would’ve added X to your punishment.

  16. Just Jaime says

    Punishing kids for lying (hot sauce?!?) will just teach them to be better liars so they won’t get caught.
    The most prolific liars I ever met were kids who’d be spanked for either the behavior they lied to cover up or for the lie itself.

  17. SLR says

    We’ve had several conversations about honesty and trust with my 6-year-old and why it’s so important to be truthful.

    What has been effective for us is taking away some of the responsibility and freedom that we have previously entrusted her with (which granted, isn’t a lot considering her age). If she won’t follow our expectations on her own and then lies about it, then we monitor her behavior more closely and do more micromanaging.

  18. Papa Steve says

    Everyone covered the issue pretty well. We have 2 kids, girl 8 and boy 5, and both lie. Lying is very frustrating but is age appropriate. Reward the truth. There will also come an instance where he may be telling the truth that you can turn into a lesson learned. You say you would like to believe him but are not sure because of his recent history of lying. That will be a natural consequence. Patience and love.

  19. Daddy-Dale says

    My wife, Paige, and my past experience with our two ‘story tellers’ is that they weren’t lieing so much as they were telling ‘fairy tales’.
    Our solution was to confront them with their percieved reality and discuss the merits of writing their ‘stories’ down when they felt the urge to embelish the truth (This technique worked for Paige with her dayhome experiences as well).
    Sometimes children just need to test their ever expanding boundries and, as long as they can be guided in the right direction as to what is real and what is make belief, they learn to distinguish between the two and adjust accordingly…most of the time!.

  20. Daniel says

    So far all of my kids tell lies from what I hear it is normal. However I am very proud of the fact that i get nothing but good reports of them being in truth telling situations. I think they are afraid of the consequences that dad will implent. The more they lie the stiffer the punishment. However if they tell me the truth no matter what it is or whose fault it is they will not get in trouble they still get a good talking to but i think thats normal. Good luck!

  21. sandi says

    o gosh. and when a parent is urging the child to lie to the other parent …. no good. you know.. gotta catch on and be smart.. cause the child does tell you…