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Is it a lie or a tall tale?

How to encourage your child to value honesty.

When your child tells you that a big shark jumped out from under the bed, it isn't necessarily a lie.

That doesn't mean you have a shark problem and will need a bigger bed, of course.

It means that, at this age, the line between reality and fantasy can be blurry. Your child might not know that he or she is telling a lie.

Lying is common in young children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

On the other hand, notes the AAP, children don't really grasp the difference between the truth and a lie until about age 6.

But even if your child is too young to realize he or she is lying, there are things you can do to encourage honesty and truthfulness.

Why children lie

Children like to make up stories and tell tall tales. In some cases this can simply be a way for them to use imagination to help navigate a confusing world.

Children also sometimes decide not to tell the truth.

A child might lie to avoid taking responsibility for breaking the rules or to get out of doing something.

It can be disheartening when your child doesn't tell the truth. But in a young child, a lie may suggest the workings of a conscience, notes the AAP. Your child is aware he or she did something wrong.

In an older child who knows the meaning of a lie, however, it also suggests that he or she doesn't understand that lying is the worse of the two wrongs.

One tale too many

If your child is prone to telling tall tales, you might want to tell him or her one of your own. "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" can be an entertaining lesson in the harm of repeatedly making up stories.

A child who tells dramatic tales with a similar theme might be conveying a hidden truth, however. He or she might have unspoken anxiety or fears.

Try asking some questions: "Really? A monster was under your bed again? What do you think it wants?"

You could work together on solutions: "Do you think we could make it go away? How?"

Honesty as the best policy

Health experts agree that the best way to teach your child the value of honesty is through your own behavior.

If your child sees you being less than truthful, according to the AAP, it will be difficult to convince him or her of the importance of honesty.

Other steps you can take:

Don't try to trap your child. If you know who broke the vase, don't ask, "Did you break the vase?" Instead, you might want to say, "I see the vase is broken. What can you do to make this better?"

Don't get angry. That might increase your child's anxiety and make it harder for him or her to tell the truth next time, says the AAP. And never call your child a liar.

Praise honesty. Reward your child when he or she is honest. Lighten the punishment when a child decides to confess and not persist in a lie.

Talk to your child. Let him or her know how important trust is, says the AAP. You might want to say, "I want us to always be able to believe each other. So let's promise to only tell each other the truth."

Warning signs

Sometimes lying or making up stories can be a sign of a more serious problem.

The following red flags come from the AAP and American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Talk to your child's doctor if:

  • Your child tells elaborate stories that appear believable. He or she might be doing it for attention.
  • Your child lies repeatedly. It can become a bad habit.
  • Your child lies to take advantage of others, or understands but doesn't care that lying is wrong.

Your doctor might refer you to a child therapist who can help you understand and cope with the behavior.

Reviewed 2/27/2023

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