A Little Fib or a Big Fat Lie? Teaching Kids Honesty

All children lie occasionally. It's a part of growing up and learning right from wrong. Catching a child in a lie is an opportunity to create a teachable moment. Tell the truth, do you know the best way to confront your son when he lies?

By Matthew S. Robinson


Is that a Lie!The startling, dreaded sound comes from the other room – the room in which your two children stand, heads down, hands behind their backs. Beside them: a freshly shattered vase.

“OK,” you ask, “who did it?”

“Not me!” is the reply, in unison.

Bill Keane’s Family Circus comic strips often employed a ghostlike character named “Not Me,” who jovially took the blame for the merry mishaps of Keane’s animated children. In reality, however, dishonesty isn’t funny.

Today’s parents can probably remember lying about something to their own moms and dads – as well as the consequences of being “found out.” But beyond normal childhood experimenting with dishonesty are situations that may point to more serious emotional problems, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP). Kids who know the difference between truthfulness and lying, for example, may start to “tell elaborate stories which appear believable.” In fact, a child telling these stories will do so very enthusiastically to try to receive even more attention.

For some children and adolescents, the need for attention can lead to repetitive or even pathological lying. They may come to see lying as the easiest way to deal with the demands of parents, teachers and friends, the AACAP notes, or as an effective way to cover up a larger problem, such as drug or alcohol abuse. Eventually, the child may even become immune to the moral pangs associated with lying.

Honesty is a character trait “learned in the home,” say childhood development experts. Most of the time, childhood lying represents a normal activity and is probably not a serious problem. But it still needs to be dealt with.

Why Do Kids Lie?

The first step in dealing with any unwanted behavior is discovering its root cause, says Bernice Lerner, director of the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University. When it comes to lying, Lerner says, the main reason is often the very human goal of self-protection.

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