When Your Kid Starts Lying: Choosing the Best Consequences

I screamed into the universe.

Just kidding. Not really. Okay, it was more like a whimper into the universe in terror of what’s to come. Whose child is this that isn’t the perfect specimen of candor and honesty?

My daughter is a feisty six-year-old with an incredible imagination. She is also very smart and very good at testing her limits and pushing boundaries.

“Did you just wash your hands after you went to the bathroom?” I asked after she flicked off the light and returned to her drawing.

“...yes,” she answered, trying her best to sound a bit aloof. I hadn’t heard the water running, nor was she in there long enough to both wipe AND flush while in a rush not to lose her train of thought for her artwork.

“Hmm, that was quick! I’d like you to go wash them again, for real this time.”

Lies like this one started happening not too long ago. There have been some other ones, like omitting that her brother only hit her AFTER she dismantled his Lego creation. Or the time she blamed him for eating the last of the chocolate cake while not realizing she was wearing a frosting mustache. Or the time she told me she ran 1,000 laps around our house while I wasn’t looking.

Some lies are more important than others. Some lies make me cover my mouth so she doesn’t see me stifling a laugh. So honestly, what do I do when she’s lying? It depends on the severity of the lie.

The phrase “pick your battles” comes to mind here. Embellishment can often be from a lack of self-confidence or self-esteem, or from wanting attention from the listener. Inflating a story or “telling a tall tale” can be pretty standard, but we don’t need to make a big deal out of it. If we’re not calling them out for lying or exaggerating, how should we react?

If it seems like the child is lying to get attention, non-reaction and redirection work best. Focus on a part of the story you know to be true, and encourage them to tell you more about that bit. If ignoring and redirecting doesn’t seem to work, then I might escalate my reaction to a mild reprimand that might sound something like, “That sounds like you’re telling tales, now can you tell me what actually happened?” Address the behavior and give your child an opportunity to try again.

If you’ve read this far and you’re rolling your eyes thinking, “Yea, all kids tell stories or lie from time to time… what about the important ones? How should I respond?” - wait no more!

Bigger lies, like whether they did their homework or whether they’ve been skipping mealtimes, are more important than telling stories of their super-human running speed. If you’ve caught your child in a lie, this might be the time to employ consequences.

A good measure for consequences:

Is it respectful of the child?
Is it reasonable in length or time?
Is it related to the offense?
Is it revealed in advance?
Have they repeated it back to you?

Think about what results you’re looking for. What behavior are you wanting to correct? If this is an action-driven consequence, the punishment should fit the crime. The consequence needs to be age-appropriate in length. It should directly correlate to the event. Discuss appropriate consequences in advance so that your children have clear expectations for responses to their behaviors. Ask that your child repeats back to you what you’ve discussed so you know they’ve heard and understood what you’ve talked about.

Try to find the root cause of the lie so that you might address it rather than simply punishing for lying. What function is the lie serving? How might we address the baseline issue so we can open communication back up with our child?

That time my daughter deflected blame for eating the cake to her brother, we discussed that her consequence for similar behavior would be taking responsibility for cleaning up the toys he played with (since in that previous scenario she tried shifting responsibility for something she’d done onto him). What was the function of her lie? Avoiding making someone mad. How do we address the baseline issue in the future? I try my best to have patience and not react negatively when she admits to things she knows she shouldn’t do. As a result, she feels more comfortable being honest.

It’s not an exact science, but I try my best. Honest!