Has your child ever lied to you? Pediatric psychiatrist Robert J. Hilt says children have the essential linguistic tools to manipulate language and lie by the age of two. By three years of age, children come to an important realization: Mommy and Daddy don’t know everything. Dr. Hilt shows where this leads:

[L]ying behaviors are not commonly seen until after children learn their parents are not omniscient. Children start their lives believing that their parents know about everything they do, even when their parents are not around. Later they learn that their parents may not know about something that they have done if their parent did not observe it happening. This realization generally happens sometime after age 3 years, in the process of realizing that other people have different thoughts and perspectives than their own; this is sometimes referred to as developing a “theory of mind.” At that point, the possibility of intentionally telling lies to avoid a negative consequence comes into fruition. The ability to lie strategically to thoroughly cover up a misdeed in response to more critical questioning generally does not develop until the child is in elementary school. Therefore, early attempts at lying can be quite humorous, such as the child who denies eating pudding but has pudding all over his/her face.


The motive for children to lie is the same as with adults: “to manipulate a situation, to avoid consequences, or to obtain goods or benefits that they may not otherwise receive.” Young children lying, says Dr. Hilt, is normal behavior. As children get older, lying becomes more problematic, the consequences more severe. Most parents don’t tolerate lying at any age, however. Sometimes our reaction to a lie actually makes things worse:

I find that parents who are most disturbed by a very young child’s lying behaviors are at greater risk to engage in dysfunctional reactions to their lies. For example, a parent who already knows that their child has done something that is not allowed, such as taking a sibling’s toy, may initiate engagement by asking a question such as “Did you take her toy?” This approach essentially asks the child to practice lying. The child knows a negative consequence will result if they say “yes” and a negative consequence will result if they say ”no” but are still found out. The only desirable option left is to try to tell a lie convincingly enough to succeed in avoiding a negative consequence. In other words, working to catch a child lying and then punishing them for telling a lie is likely to have the opposite effect, ultimately training the child to get better and better at telling lies over time by rewarding the most successful lies.


Dr. Hilt advises parents to base their discipline on what they know (in other words, what they see for themselves), NOT based on what the child (or children) is telling them. “Actions speak louder than words,” he counsels. Parents also should try not to get in the middle of sibling conflicts by becoming the judge and jury.

Parents should avoid situations in which a child’s explanation becomes the sole basis for discipline of a sibling—that kind of power just encourages increasingly skillful lies.


Dr. Hilt says that mental health referrals for evaluation and counseling are seldom needed as long as parents are reacting to and discipling the lying behavior appropriately.

More from this interesting article here.