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Parenting Tips from the Pros: How to Teach Children Not to Lie

An author and a Doctor of Psychology with specialties include children, family relationships, domestic violence, and sexual assault
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Do you want a teen who lies, deceives, and sneaks behind your back to get what they want? No, you probably don’t—neither do I. Lying is a habit that starts when they are young. Then, by the time they have become teenagers, they would be proficient in lying because of years of practice. It is far better to teach children not to lie and instill in them the habit of honestly while they are young. Their character is dependent on their ability to be transparent, honest, and an unwillingness to bend the truth. Lying is a habit, as is honesty.

Below are some tips on how to teach children not to lie and hopefully, prevent your child from developing deceptive behaviors.

Why Kids Lie

Kids lie for a variety of reasons. For young kids, it can start with fantasy. They may say to their classmate, “I sailed to Africa and back again last night.” We know this isn’t the truth, but their little friend may not know that this is a lie. The lie may have been said as an experiment to see if they can get away with making up things or to impress their friend.

Many children lie because they don’t want to be held accountable for their actions. They may have failed their math test and know that it will result in a grounding. There may be a birthday party they want to attend over the weekend, so they tell their parents they got a B on the math test rather than tell the truth and miss the party.

There other children who lie because they get a rush of excitement when they get others to believe things that are not true. This is not good. The addiction to this feeling can grow and cause their lies and deception to escalate over time. This type of lying can develop into compulsive lying.

Other kids lie because they are embarrassed. They may lie about what they got for Christmas or where they went on summer vacation because they are embarrassed by their reality. They may think that others will look at them as less than them because of their situation. Talk to your kids about this kind of lying. Let them know that they are not less than others regardless of their situation and lying will not make them feel better in the long run.


Other kids will lie to impress others. It’s not that they are embarrassed by their situation or life experiences. It may just be that they want to impress others. This is an attempt to build their self-esteem, but it is a futile attempt because it is built on lies. Talk to your kids about lying to make themselves look better. Discuss the reality of whether the lies help in the long run or if they can hurt them.

Below are some questions to consider asking your child if they are lying for attention or to make themselves look better.

  • If your friends find out the truth, do you think it will make it easier or harder for them to trust you in the future?
  • Why are you telling lies about your situation? What is it that you are trying to gain by lying? What are the risks if people find out that you are lying?

Kids are impulsive, so lies can be told out of impulsivity. Their pre-frontal cortex is not fully developed, which makes their behavior more impulsive. It won’t fully develop until approximately age 25 according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.[1] The prefrontal cortex controls decision-making and using good judgment. This lack of brain development inevitably causes poor judgment including lying.

Kids with ADHD have impulsive behaviors. Therefore, they can be more prone to lying. According to New Life New Outlook ADHD, that “in children, ADHD is often associated with impulsiveness, and this often includes lying. Habitual liars lie without forethought, and it is this impulsive behavior that can often be seen in those with ADHD.”[2]

1. Be the Model of Truth

One of the most effective ways to teach children not to lie is by serving as a good role model. Kids will model their parent’s or caregiver’s behaviors. If they see you telling lies regularly, they are going to grow up believing that this behavior is permissible. If a cashier hands you back the wrong change and you get an extra $20, do you give it back or do you keep it?

Your behavior speaks just as much as your words. If you keep the money and your child sees you doing this, they are going to believe that dishonesty is okay if it is beneficial. The right thing to do is to give the money back to the cashier and let them know that they made a mistake. Your child will see that honesty is the best policy.


Your children are also watching you. They are not only learning from you, but they are also learning about you. If you make a habit of lying, deceitful, and dishonest behavior, they will recognize this behavior as such eventually. If you care about what your children think of you and your character, then make a habit of being honest and truthful in your words and actions.

2. Talk About Brutal Honesty Versus Telling the Truth

“Your outfit is the ugliest thing I have ever seen.” It may be the truth, but does anyone need someone to say this to their face? Of course not. Just because you think something doesn’t mean it needs to be said.

Children need to learn the difference between brutal honesty that is not needed and telling the truth. If the information is going to hurt someone’s feelings and is not necessary, then it likely doesn’t need to be said. If your child doesn’t quite grasp this concept, then roleplay some scenarios and ask them what they should do in each situation.

Below are some examples.

  • If your friend got a really bad haircut, should you tell them it looks awful? Is this helpful truth-telling or brutal honesty?
  • If your grandma gives you a gift you don’t like, should you tell her it is the worst gift ever? What do you think you could say so that you aren’t lying (perhaps simply saying thank you for the gift)?
  • You see your older sister sneaking out of the house at midnight and she tells you not to tell on her. Your mom comes out of her bedroom and asks what the noise is all about so late at night. What do you tell your mom? What could happen to your sister (being out of the house in the middle of the night) if you don’t tell your mom the truth?

3. Have Consequences for Lying

You want to teach your children not to lie, even if it gets them in trouble. You must have consequences for deliberate lying, especially when it comes to telling the truth about things that may get them in trouble. Let them know that there are reduced consequences if they tell the truth.

In our home, my kids know that if they lie about what happened, then they get double the consequence. One consequence (one day of no tablet playtime) for the behavior and a second consequence for lying about it (two days of no tablet playtime). Sometimes, I have to remind them about the double consequence before I ask them about what happened. Kids are going to be more inclined to tell the truth if they know that lying will only make the situation worse for them in the long run.


4. Don’t Set Them Up to Lie

There are instances when it would be easy to set up a child to lie. This is like setting them up to fail. Again, lying is a habit, so help your child practice truth-telling and honesty. Provide ways and outs for them to tell the truth. Don’t back them into the corner and then call them out on being a liar. This does not help build good character in the long run.

If you know that your child came home after curfew because it was recorded by your doorbell or security system, then don’t pretend like you don’t know and then show them the proof to call them a liar as well. Sometimes, facing the consequences of their behavior is hard enough. They may think that they can avoid trouble if they think they can lie and get away with it.

Instead of cornering them, turn it around to a situation where you help them tell the truth, saying “you know we have cameras on the house that record the time people enter and exit the home, do you want to tell me what time you came home last night?” Saying it in a gentle tone and not a punitive tone can help prompt them to tell the truth. You want them to decide to tell the truth on their own.

This helps teach your children not to lie and creates a habit of truth-telling. When they tell you the truth, then you give them the consequence for breaking curfew. But you also let them know the additional consequence that would have been dealt with had they also lied about things.

5. Don’t Brand Your Child as a Liar

Another important way to teach your children not to lie is to not brand them as a liar. If you tell someone that they are something, eventually that is what they will become.

This statement is not true in all circumstances. My daughter won’t become a beautiful butterfly just because I say she is a beautiful butterfly day after day. However, she may emulate the graceful movements of a butterfly because she believes what I am telling her.


The same is true with the character traits that we assign to our children. If we tell our children they are hard workers, you will see that over time that this character develops more. If we point out every time they do a job that they are “a wonderful hard worker, one of the best you know,” you will see them try harder because they believe what you are telling them.

The words of a parent are powerful. If a parent tells their child that they are a liar and this label is affixed or branded on the child in their mind, then they will take it to heart. Not only can this affect their self-esteem, but they can also think that they are bad in some way. They may even go so far as to lie more to get it to work in their favor. If you have branded them as a liar, then they may think they can’t change that about themselves, so they would just use it to their benefit.

6. Reinforce Honesty With Praise

If you have called your child a liar, begin working to reverse this branding in their mind. Look for instances when they are being honest and truthful. Tell them that they are a good and honest kid. Do this over and over again to reinforce their positive truth-telling behaviors.

Use positive reinforcement by praising your child when they are honest, especially in difficult situations. If they did poorly on a test and they got a bad grade, then commend them for sharing the truth with you. Let the child know that you appreciate their honesty and now that you know the truth, you can help them before their next exam or get them some tutoring.

7. Let Them Know Everyone Makes Mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes in life. Nobody is perfect. We need to let our children know that we don’t expect perfection from them. We want them to be honest when they make mistakes in life so we can help them through things. We can provide guidance and support when we know that help is needed from us.

Allow your child to tell the truth. Sometimes, kids have impulsive reactions and will lie before thinking. In these situations, you may say, “how about I give you ten minutes to think about things again, and then we will have this chat again?” Then, you can go back to the conversation in ten minutes and allow them to tell the truth—again, reminding them that if they tell the truth there are reduced consequences.


Final Thoughts

Lying is an inevitable part of social life, and your children will be exposed to this as a natural part of growing up. However, it is up to you as a parent to teach your children not to lie and instill in them the habit of honesty instead.

Create opportunities for truth-telling and honesty. It will help them establish these habits as a foundation for their character. Commend them for their honesty, especially when it is difficult for them to tell the truth.

More Practical Parenting Tips

Featured photo credit: Charlein Gracia via unsplash.com


[1]Bridges 2 Understanding: Maturation of the Prefrontal Cortex
[2]New Life New Outlook ADHD: Adult ADHD and Lying: What You Need to Know
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