18 - 48 Months+

Little liars: What to do about lying

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“Once you catch your child lying at a very young age, you can use that as a teachable moment. So to talk about what is a lie and what is our obligation to tell the truth most of the time, and what are the negative moral consequences or moral implications of lying, such as losing trust.”

Dr. Kang Lee, researcher at the University of Toronto

In this episode:

[2:37] What is the difference between lying and storytelling?

[3:50] How does a child’s fantasy world factor into the storytelling? 

[5:49] How should you respond when you trap your child in a lie? 

[8:28] Is it a good idea to call our children out on their lies at all? 

[12:05] How does the situation differ when a child is lying to get their needs met?

[15:48] When do children start to use white lies in social settings? 

[18:10] Are white lies OK? How can we help children differentiate between the various types of lying? 

[20:04] How do parents encourage truth-telling with a 3-5 year old? 

[24:21] Jessica shares key takeaways from her honest conversation with Dr. Kang Lee.


Leaf through any Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein, and you’ll encounter lie, after boldface lie. Only in these fantasy realms, the lies are the product of a wildly creative imagination!

There’s good reason why children love these books. Their worlds are steeped in fantasy. For children, the line between make-believe and reality is hazy and testing the boundary between the two is part of growing up. Children — like adults — lie. And they can learn to do so from the young age of 2 years old according to the researchers.

Today’s guest has been examining lying and what it tells us about human cognition for over two decades. The man is so dedicated to this field of study, he has convinced some 5000 children to lie to him! I am speaking of Dr. Kang Lee, professor at the University of Toronto. 

Kang’s lab studies suggest that at the age 2 about half of all children lie, and half tell the truth. At 4 years old, 90% of children will lie, and then lying peaks at around age 7. We might think lying is bad, but evidence suggests it is proof that executive functioning skills are developing in a child’s brain. In other words, lying is a sign of self control. 

So rather than despair, Kang says to use these moments as teachable ones. But, resist the urge to fall back on the “Never Cry Wolf” story — you’ll find out why at the end of this episode! I started our conversation by asking Kang to explain the difference between lying and storytelling.

Telling lies vs. storytelling

Kang: Yeah. So the key ingredient or criteria, a key criterion for us to define a verbal statement to be a lie is whether or not the child knows something he or she’s telling is not true, but they are telling it with the intent to deceive the listener. And if your child knows something never happened, but then she’s telling you with the intention to convince you that that happened, then she’s actually lying. So regardless of whether or not this storytelling is through imagination or lying in a simplest form, but as long as they have intent to distill kind of false beliefs into your mind, then it’s lying.

Jessica: And then, is there a question about a child’s fantasy, sense of fantasy or imagination where they’re not actually intending to lie, but they just have an active imagination, and so they’re doing this kind of storytelling, but again they’re not intending to deceive you, it’s just what’s going on in their brain in terms of their fantasy world? 

Kang: Oh, definitely. Yeah, definitely. And the kids have very, like the kids particularly preschoolers have vivid imaginations. And they in their mind they create all sorts of non-existent worlds, and then they communicate these kinda… What’s happening in this world to you, to their friends, etcetera, etcetera. But they know very, very clearly, at least after three years of age, when they are talking about things that is really in the fantastical world versus something they want to convey about the reality.

So one example is that there are actually quite a few kids in the world who have imaginary friends, and then they go through all these routines to show to their parents their imaginary friends around them. And they’re not lying in that sense, because they create this fantastical world in which some of these friends are quite vivid to them, but they’re not really lying to you, they’re just telling you, that kind of a world exists to them as far as they’re concerned. But they are not trying to convince you. Because when we tell lies, we typically have this intention only to instill false beliefs into your mind, but also get you to do something for them. And then for example, when I broke my mom’s favorite vase. When my mom asked me, “Kang, did you break my vase?” I would say no, so that I want to avoid being punished by her.

How to approach the conversation

Jessica: Yes, and that makes a lot of sense. What you just said in that script, “Kang, did you break my favorite vase?” even though you as a parent know that that is the case, should you actually ask your child that question and really trap them in a lie? Or should you just say, “Kang I see that you broke this vase, what should we do about it?” How should you handle it? 

Kang: No, you asked an excellent question. So most of the time when children lie, particularly when they lie at a very young age, is because they are confronted by an adult, in particular by their parents who are authority figures who have set the rules, and they know full well they have broken the rules. And then you put them in a corner they just cannot get out of, and they don’t have the political power or physical strength to fight you off, so the only thing that can come to their mind is, “Hey, I can move my lips and say something, my mom actually would back off.” And kids actually figure this out very early on. And so that’s why they resort to lying because parents are confronting them. So the key is don’t put them in the corner even if you know for well they have done that.

And then number two is sometimes an interesting way, so in our conversation with parents is kids that would say, “No, I didn’t do it.” and then the parents say, “No, no, I know you did it. You lied.”, and then the child would say, “How do you know?” And the parents will say, “I know because you did such and such, therefore I know you told a lie.” And what the parent is doing is teaching the child to lie better next time, so by telling them how you figure out they’re lying. So let me give an example, which is related to your story as well. So a friend of mine, when she was very young and she didn’t want to brush her teeth, so when her mom asking her, “Did you brush your teeth?” and she said, “I did.” So what she did was before the mom asked the question, go brush your teeth, and she didn’t want to brush her teeth. She went into the toilet and then take out the toothbrush and then brushed the brush against the sink so to make the sound. And then she came out and told her mom that, “Mom, I brushed my teeth.” And then mom then said, “No, you didn’t. You lied.” and then of course, she was caught. And then she asked, “Mom, how did you know?” she said, “Well, I checked your tooth brush, it’s not wet.”

And then from then onward she would just say, you know why she didn’t want to brush her teeth, by the way, she still want to lie, she just dipped the toothbrush in the water. So basically, now, she learned to up the game, so to speak, about her ability to lie and lie convincingly to her mom.

How to deal with lying

Jessica: So is it a good idea to call our children out on their lie at all? 

Kang: Oh yes.

Jessica: How should we handle it

Kang: So you do have to call out on their lies, but don’t tell them how you figured it out, that’s number one. Number two is you really, really have to assure your child that it is okay to confess that they have lied and you won’t be angry about it. So this is something a lot of parents say to their kids, that is, “If you tell me the truth, I won’t be angry.” But in reality, however, there’s evidence to show that most parents actually break their own promise, so they actually become angry. Why should we confront children when they are lying? Because when you catch your children lying, this is actually something you should be thankful for of. Because with time, it will be very difficult for you to know whether or not that your child has lied, so once you catch your child lying at a very young age, you can use that as a teachable moment. So to talk about what is a lie and what is our obligation to tell the truth most of the time, and what are the negative moral consequences or moral implications of lying such as losing trust, etcetera, etcetera. So you can use that as a teachable moment to talk about lying and truth telling.

Well, when you tell lies, let’s say about your cookies, then tomorrow I’m going to ask you “Nathan, have you done your homework?” And you say, “I have.” It’s very hard for me to figure out whether or not you actually have done it, or you have not done it. And then so if someone tells lie, the untruth or lies all the time, from one day and another and then gradually, gradually, people are not going to trust the person. To be friends you really have to be truthful to each other. Something like this. 

The key actually is not about getting the child out of this fight and flight kind of state, it’s about the parents put themselves in a calm emotional state, so that the child can feel safe to disclose whatever happened. So most of the time when we encounter situations of lying, it’s because the transgression could be quite serious. It’s not like taking cookies from cookie jars, but there’s was something else, like the dad’s car window is broken or the child has done something very bad to the family pet and things like that. So the parents are really really hard to control their emotions, so that they can deal with the situation rationally, not emotionally. So that’s the key.

Is lying a normal part of development?

Jessica: Help parents understand that lying is not only normal, but I’ve also read that it’s a sign of intelligence, can you talk to this? 

I’m going to give you a scenario that I’m hoping you can help me with. I’ve been through so many different lying scenarios as my children have grown. One of them is that my daughter would often say that she needed to go to the bathroom when she was three, in the car. We were on a long car ride, and she would say she had to go the bathroom, but she would barely need to go. She just was bored of the drive. She wanted to stop, see what happens when she got out of the car. And so it became this kind of cry wolf situation where we didn’t want to stop every 30 minutes for her, but we also didn’t want to have her have an accident. How would you recommend, as a parent, we deal with the situation? 

Kang: Well, if you actually know that’s the case. Why wouldn’t you tell as is? I think that this is something I find quite fascinating, when we human carry out conversations, we already figure something out and we don’t want to point it out to people. Maybe just tell your daughter, is that because are you… Do you really want to go to pee? Or is it that you’re bored, you want to stop, You want us to stop? If that’s what you have figured out your daughter wants to do. Maybe that’s the conversation you should have, it’s just to lay that out. But don’t kind of accuse your child of lying, okay? Just say, “Is that what you want?” Maybe she would be able to respond to you about her real issues instead of… Maybe you are right. She really doesn’t want to pee, but she wants… She just got bored.

Jessica: That’s a great one. Okay, I’m going to give you another one. This is good stuff. My child goes to the bathroom, he’s got his little step stool, he can wash his hands all on his own, he’s so big. He comes out and I’m pretty positive he didn’t wash his hands, maybe he put some water over them, but definitely not with soap. So I would say, “Did you wash your hands?” And he would say “Yes.” And then I would ask him to come over and I would smell his hands. And I would say, “It didn’t smell soap,” and so I’d send him back to wash his hands. How do you feel about that scenario? What should I have done differently? 

Kang: No, this is great, and you didn’t say anything about the child’s lying, you didn’t confront him. So this is fantastic. So there’s something very interesting about adults point of view and kids point of view, for example, about washing hand. Way you think about washing hand is very different from a child’s point of view, what you mean by washing their hands. This is different in definitions actually. So this actually happens all the time in many, many behaviors, a lot of disputes that parents have with their kids tend to come from the misunderstanding of what each other means. And kids actually define lying very differently from way you defined lying. Let me give an example. So if you say, “Hey, let’s go to McDonald’s for dinner tonight.”

And then you change your mind. Your kids get excited, but something really big happened. You couldn’t really go and then you say, “Hey, I’m sorry, we couldn’t got to McDonald’s.” And you know what, your child actually thinks you have lied. So basically, when you make a promise then you break your promise about something’s going to happen in the future, they actually think you have lied. So they actually become very angry with that. So sometimes we do have to be very careful about situations like this is… Is that because my child does not understand what I want him or her to do versus the child actually wants to deceive me. So the child has attached to a goal, has gone to the sink, turned on the faucet, wetted his hands. So by his definition, he has done washing. The only difference is that your definition of washing requires, soap up the hands and then wash off the soap, right? So that’s the part that they’re missing. So I think in this case, I will say, the child probably has not tried to deceive you.

How to approach white lies

Jessica: That’s a great example. And what about white lies? When do children start to do white lies or these cordial lies, something to just help somebody feel better?

Kang: So kids start to tell white lies about three years of age, just about the time they tell lies to cover their own transgressions, but they are… Most of the kids are less likely to tell them, so they are brutally honest. So when they receive a Christmas gift, they don’t like and they will tell you to your face. If they don’t tell you to your face, you can see their facial expressions or their postures. And so you can tell very quickly they don’t like the gift that you have given them. So but by about six, seven years of age, and the most of the kids have learned to lie and to tell white lies so to spare your feelings, to be polite. At the same time, you could barely tell they are actually lying.

And then after that they even can come up with a great reasons why they like your gifts. So let me give an example, so in our study, we want to study naturalistically, how kids learn to tell white lies? We actually would help them in doing things with us, and afterwards we say, “Wow, you have done such a great job with us, I’m going to give you a gift.” And then we give them a wrapped gift, but inside, it’s a bar of soap. So a bar of white soap, you can buy from a dollar store and then when they open it up and they are… Almost a 100% of the kids will not like it, and then some kids say, “Oh no. This is a bar of soap. I don’t like it.” But some older kids, six, seven year-olds will say, “Oh, a bar of soap, I love it. We just run out of soap. So this is just perfect for us.” And one of the kids even told us, their mom actually collects soap at home which turned out to be a lie enough by itself. Kids actually even would tell elaborate white lies to spare another person’s feelings after about six, seven years of age.

Teaching the difference between white lies and deceitful lies 

Jessica: So then those early lies, those early white lies, how do we explain… Are those good? How do they differentiate between other lies? How do we handle this complexity with our little children? 

Kang: Yes, for example, the Christmas time is the best time actually for you to teach your kids about the difference between white lies and lies to conceal a transgression. Because sometimes we as adults also receive gifts we don’t like, and then we sometimes tell the gift giver that we like it, and afterwards in private then we say, we don’t like it, sometimes with your child present. Or your child receives a gift that he or she doesn’t like, they tell the truth about it. And then you can use that as a teachable moment, not in front of the gift giver of course, but just when you come home, you can talk about this, you see in this situation, what you should do and why you’re doing this explain it. And then using that moment also to make a distinction about things like when you get the gift you don’t like, what you should do and why you’re doing it. And then when you’ve done something wrong and then what you should do and why you should do it. Making that distinction, it could be a good teachable moment.

Jessica: That’s so interesting. It’s kind of like in the same way that children learn, please and thank you. They learn what kind of lies are okay by carefully watching their parents.

Kang: Exactly, because kids actually do not know the distinction between lies to spare others feelings versus lies to cover up their transgressions or for their own personal interests. They couldn’t really tell the difference. We need to kind of label them differently, that’s why in our language, we call it fib, we call it the white lies. So these are good vocabulary to use, so that in the child’s mind, these are two different kind of concepts.

How to encourage truth telling

Jessica: And then how do we encourage truth telling at home with let’s say we have a three or four or five-year-old at home, they’re starting to lie more and more, how do we tune into them? 

Kang: Yes. Let me just tell you what kind of things will not work. So telling children these stories, let’s say about the crying wolf story doesn’t work, okay. The Pinocchio story doesn’t work. These stories, we adults kinda constructed with the purpose to scare children off telling lies, they don’t work because you are conveying negative messages about if you lie, you’re going to die and your nose is going to grow, all sorts of bad things are going to happen to you. That’s not the way you teach kids not to lie, to be honest. The story that works is actually the story that never happened, that’s the George Washington story. I don’t know… You must know what the George Washington story is.

Jessica: Yes, yes, but tell us again, for anybody who doesn’t know.

Kang: Yeah, George Washington story is a very interesting story. Basically it goes like this. George Washington’s father gave George Washington an axe as a gift. And George Washington really likes the axe, and one day he’ll use his axe to chop down one of his fathers favorite cherry trees, and then his father found out and asked George Washington, “Who chopped on my favorite cherry tree?“ and George Washington said, “It is me father.”I chopped down at the cherry tree, because I cannot lie. And then, what happened was George Washington’s father said, “I would rather have a honest son, than 1000 cherry trees.” And that statement is very, very important. It conveys a positive message about, If you tell the truth, you’ll be… Your father would really appreciate it. And then so, when we read George Washington stories to kids who have never heard this story before, they became more likely to tell the truth.

And so when we told children stories about The Boy Who Cried Wolf or Pinocchio’s story, kids didn’t change their lying behavior at all. And then, to make sure it is a positive message that made children more likely to be honest, we actually changed the ending of the classic George Washington story. We turned that into a negative one in which George Washington lied that is, “No, I didn’t chop down the cherry tree, but he was… His father found out, and he scolded George Washington. And then when we changed the ending of the story, children started to tell lies again. So you can tell that the positive message, it would promote honesty. But negative messaging actually does not. It may even make it worse. So when we want our kids to behave morally, the stories we have to tell to promote moral behavior, positive moral behavior, is to talk about things positively.

Jessica: Dr. Kang, that is the best message for parenting ever, because it really goes to the fact that when we feel good, we do better. When we feel bad, we do worse. It is just the most classic thing. I will say from my experience, when Bea… It was pee, and then it was poop. She really felt poop when she was on these car trips, from three to four. And so we started telling her the story of the wolf, but we joked that it was Poop Wolf, and we were like, “Are you calling Poop Wolf right now or not?” And it did not help to tell her that story. If only you and I had had this conversation earlier, I would have told her the George Washington story, and she would have stopped all those extra stops on road trips. So, huge thank you so much for have… For being with us today. It’s just been wonderful talking to you.

Kang: Thank you very much for your time.

Here are my takeaways from the conversation with Dr. Kang Lee:

  1. Lying is a sign of normal development in a child, evidence of increasing self control.
  2. The difference between lying and storytelling is intent. Ask yourself, did your child’s story intend to deceive you? 
  3. Avoid putting your child in a corner. Rather than asking, ‘Did you break that?’ Try: ‘I see there’s been an accident. Let’s clean it up’.
  4. If you know full well that your child is lying, use it as a teachable moment. Keep it casual and calm — stay connected to your child when explaining why lying can be hurtful and honesty is a better choice. 
  5. If you’re going to use a fable, avoid negative outcomes like those in Never Cry Wolf or Pinocchio. A better story would be something like George Washington’s, where his father commends him for being truthful.
  6. Talk regularly with your child about the benefits of building trust.

Help your child differentiate between white lies, or fibs, and deceitful lies. Parents can model white lies as a way to protect another’s feelings. Learn more at the Lovevery blog, Here with you

Dr. Kang Lee and his associates are conducting a social integrity study exploring children’s decision-making and rule adherence. Children will read stories and do activities in two 1-hour sessions, online via Zoom. Families will receive a certificate and a $25 Amazon gift card for participation. Use this link to learn more and participate: kangleelab.com/participate 


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Posted in: 18 - 48 Months+, Behavior, Cognitive, Social Emotional, Child Development, Behavior, Parenting

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