Tall tales and lying are two different things. Tall tales are stories that a child makes up or true stories that he or she exaggerates. Lying, on the other hand, is a willful attempt to deceive as a way to get positive results or avoid negative consequences.

Preschool children may not always tell the truth, but what they say isn’t necessarily lying. Preschool children cannot always distinguish what really happened from what they thought happened or wanted to have happen. They sometimes have a hard time distinguishing thoughts and fantasies from reality. If your preschool-aged child says she didn’t spill the milk, she may mean she wishes she hadn’t.

Older children, like adults, lie to avoid consequences for their behavior. They are often either ashamed to admit the truth or wanting to avoid embarrassment and rejection. Older children may also lie to get attention or to make us mad. If they are angry with us, they want us to be mad too. If you want to put a stop to an older child’s lying, think about why the child is lying.

As you work to answer the question of why, here are some ways you can deal with persistent lying:

  • Avoid setting up a child to tell a lie. If you know the answer to a question, don’t ask it. For example, if you know a bedroom did not get cleaned as expected, don’t ask, “Did you clean your room?” You can simply comment that you noticed the room didn’t get cleaned. Then you can add, “Please, go do it now.”
  • Don’t overreact. You want your children to trust you, and you want them to tell the truth. If you overreact to a small lie, your child may become fearful of your reaction, which can result in more lying.
  • Reward the truth. Let your children know you value their honesty—even if it means they have to own up to a problem. Acknowledge that they told the truth when they might have tried to benefit from lying. Let them know how much you do appreciate it.
  • Define clear consequences for lying. Let your children know the rules about lying and what will happen if you catch them at it. You want the consequences to get their attention but not be so harsh they feel discouraged. The idea is that they learn from the experience. For example, if your son tells you he cleaned his room and he really didn’t, you might adopt the rule that there is one consequence for his not cleaning his room and another consequence for lying about it.

More to consider:

A few reasons children lie . . .

  • To stay out of trouble
  • To impress someone
  • To get attention or praise
  • To get something they want
  • To protect someone
  • Because they hear their parents or other adults lie (for example, to avoid someone or something)