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Lies and fibs

lies; thinking; stories; right; fantasy; wrong; privacy; imaginary; friends; punishment; self-esteem; lying; teach; liar; behaviour; habit; development; school; imagination; esteem;

When children don’t tell the truth it can upset and worry parents. It is important to understand what the lie means to your child before you react.

The content of this topic was developed by Parenting SA - A partnership between the Department for Education and Child Development and the Women’s and Children’s Health Network. (South Australia) 


Learning about the truth

Children's understanding of the truth is related to their development.

  • Telling lies has no meaning for children under three. They do not understand that thinking is private and they believe that their parents can read their minds. A two year old in a shop may say "Why did you lose me, Mummy?" They think mum knows where they are, even whenthey are out of sight.
  • Three to four year olds are learning that other people don’t know what they are thinking. Children this age have a very strong imagination. They enjoy practising their new knowledge and often test it out by telling 'stories', eg. "The big bad wolf did it". It is normal for young children to blame someone else or make up a story.
  • Children in the early years of school usually want to please their parents more than they want to do the ‘right thing’, so they are less likely to tell the truth if they think it will make their parents angry or upset.
  • By eight or nine children may have some understanding of the difference between the truth and fantasy, such as Father Christmas.
  • A child’s sense of right and wrong is usually developed by about nine or ten years of age.

Understanding and telling the truth is something that children learn over years, not something they know from birth.

Imaginary friends

Some children at about three or four have an imaginary friend. This friend usually disappears as the child grows older. Children talk to and play with this friend. They might talk to the friend when they are upset. They sometimes blame the friend when they do something wrong.

There is no need for concern unless your child seems really withdrawn and unable to get on with other children and adults. See the topic Imaginary friends for more information.

Why children lie

Children might lie because they:

  • They are not old enough to understand the difference between truth and untruth, and right or wrong.
  • Fear of punishment or fear of losing their parents’ affection.
  • Have low self-esteem and wanting to make themselves sound better.
  • Want to impress their friends and to fit in with the group.
  • They really believe that what they are saying is true - it is how things seem to them.
  • Are copying other people. Parents might say that lying is wrong but not always tell the truth themselves, eg when someone is at the door and a parent says to the child, “Tell them I am not at home”.
  • Are saying what they wish was true. For example, “My dad always takes me to the football”.

Older children and teenagers may tell lies because:

  • They fear that if they tell the truth they will not be allowed to do something they really want to do.
  • They have a need to keep some parts of their lives private and not share them with parents.

If you notice when your child lies it may help you understand why, e.g. is it when they are with friends, just to one person, or when they are upset?

Try to understand why your child is not telling the truth. There may be something you can help with.

Polite lying or 'white' lying

Most parents teach their children as they get older that there are times when it is OK not to tell the truth, such as when it is not polite or could be hurtful.

For example

  • saying 'Thank you for the lovely present' whether or they like it or not, or to say they like food offered to them whether they like it or not.
  • avoiding using hurtful words such as 'hating' something or someone or that something or someone is ugly.

It takes a long time for childen to learn the difference between lies to be kind and lies for other reasons.

What parents can do

  • Try not to get into a battle about telling the truth.
  • Teach children why it is important to tell the truth, eg. "When people tell us the truth it helps us to trust them". Let them know that in your family it is safe to tell the truth - that you will not be very angry if something wrong has happened. You know children are still learning how to do things right.
  • For younger children, teach the difference between truth and fantasy, eg. "That was a good story" or "I can see you make up lovely stories, perhaps we can write them down to keep".
  • If you think your child is afraid of punishment, talk about the ways that you will deal with mistakes so that they know not to be afraid to be honest.
  • Try not to accuse the child of mistakes. "I see there’s been an accident with the milk, let’s clean it up" or "Can you clean it up?" rather than "Did you spill the milk?"
  • Show your child that you understand that some lies are wishes. For example, if a child says that his dad is phoning all the time and you know this is not true, you could say "It sounds like you wish Dad could be here all the time".
  • Give older children and teenagers some personal privacy. Ask what you need to know about in order to protect them, but don't pry too much. Often they will talk to you when the time is right and they feel you will listen without judging.
  • Tell the truth yourself. Don't break promises because to children that seems like telling a lie. If you can't do what you promised, give a good reason.
  • If your child keeps lying for any reason or is unable to accept the truth when it is shown to them in a caring way, it would be wise to seek some counselling. 

Notice when your child tells the truth and let them know you are pleased. Don’t label your child ‘a liar’ because labels tend to encourage the kind of behaviour you don’t want.

Resources in South Australia

Parent Helpline
Phone1300 364 100 For advice on child health and parenting

Child and Family Health Service (CaFHS)
Phone 1300 733 606, 9am-4:30pm, Mon to Fri to make an appointment.

Parenting SA
For more Parent Easy Guides


Parenting SA - A partnership between the Department for Education and Child Development and the Women’s and Children’s Health Network. (South Australia) 
Ph: 08 8303 1660

Parent Easy Guides are free in South Australia.

More to read

Raising Children Network Raising Children website is produced with the help of an extensive network including the Australian Government.

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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