Parents are often concerned when they catch a child willfully trying to be deceptive. If that situation crops up for you, first consider your child’s developmental stage.

Preschool children, for example, may not always tell the truth, but this age group cannot always distinguish between what really happened and what they thought or hoped would happen. Preschool children can have a hard time differentiating their thoughts and fantasies from reality. If a preschooler says she didn’t drop a glass, she may mean that she wishes she hadn’t dropped the glass.

Older kids typically tell lies for the same reasons adults do—and adults do lie from time to time. Older kids and adults lie to avoid consequences for their actions or to avoid embarrassment, to steer clear of rejection, or because they are ashamed to tell the truth. Kids may also lie to get attention or because they are mad and want their parents to get mad with them. If you can try to understand why a child is lying, it will help you find the key to correcting ongoing deceptions.

In addition to considering developmental stage and the reason behind deceptive behavior, here are a few more things to put in your playbook:

  • Don’t set a child up to tell a lie. If you already know the answer to your question, don’t ask it. For example, if you know your child didn’t clean up the kitchen as you requested, simply make the observation with a new directive: “I noticed the kitchen hasn’t been cleaned up. I need you to do that now.”
  • Be calm. Overreacting to a lie can lead to more lying because children will be afraid of the backlash. Step back from your emotions as you deal calmly and directly with the deception.
  • Create and communicate clear consequences for lying. Make the consequences for lying strong enough to make a point to kids while not being punitive and discouraging.
  • Reward the truth. Let your children know that you respect their honesty.

At some time, you may find yourself in a murky situation that might involve a child’s lie. If you don’t have clear proof, confront a suspected lie while wondering aloud about the child’s motivation. For example, “Your story doesn’t sound like the truth to me, but I can’t prove it right now. I wonder if you are scared I’ll be mad at you if you tell me the truth?” You can then tell your child to think about it and revise his or her story if need be. If the story is not revised, and you still suspect a lie in it, make an honest statement. “I still doubt your story for some reason. I’ll just watch the situation more closely. If my suspicions turn out to be incorrect, I’ll owe you an apology. If I find you did lie, we will have to talk about the problem it creates for us, and there will be consequences.”

Since we want to teach our children how to survive and thrive in the world, we do want them to understand the value of being honest. We can teach the value of honesty through conversations and modeling and the consequences of lying through discipline, when needed.