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Why Do Kids Lie?

We seem to be in an ongoing analysis of why people lie… First, clients to therapists. And now we bring you a well-written, in-depth article in yesterday’s New York Magazine about why kids lie. The findings from one of the studies are not surprising to any parent:

Out of the 36 topics, the average teen was lying to his parents about twelve of them. The teens lied about what they spent their allowances on, and whether they’d started dating, and what clothes they put on away from the house. They lied about what movie they went to, and whom they went with. They lied about alcohol and drug use, and they lied about whether they were hanging out with friends their parents disapproved of. They lied about how they spent their afternoons while their parents were at work. They lied about whether chaperones were in attendance at a party or whether they rode in cars driven by drunken teens.

Of course they do. These are the topics that are difficult or embarrassing to talk about. They are the topics that result in a kid feeling like they are disappointing their parents, or result in serious punishments. We’ve all done it — it’s an inevitable part of the process of growing up. And your children will do it too.

So how does it start and do kids just grow out of it?

It starts as early as 2 or 3 — the more intelligent the child, the earlier (and better!) the liar. They do it to avoid taking responsibility for something and to avoid punishment.

Many parenting Websites and books advise parents to just let lies go—they’ll grow out of it. The truth, according to Talwar, is that kids grow into it. In studies where children are observed in their natural environment, a 4-year-old will lie once every two hours, while a 6-year-old will lie about once every hour and a half. Few kids are exceptions.


In longitudinal studies, a majority of 6-year-olds who frequently lie have it socialized out of them by age 7. But if lying has become a successful strategy for handling difficult social situations, a child will stick with it. About half of all kids do—and if they’re still lying a lot at 7, then it seems likely to continue for the rest of childhood. They’re hooked.

So who’s to blame? Well the parents of course!!

Consider how we expect a child to act when he opens a gift he doesn’t like. We instruct him to swallow all his honest reactions and put on a polite smile. Talwar runs an experiment where children play games to win a present, but when they finally receive the present, it’s a lousy bar of soap. After giving the kids a moment to overcome the shock, a researcher asks them how they like it. About a quarter of preschoolers can lie that they like the gift—by elementary school, about half. Telling this lie makes them extremely uncomfortable, especially when pressed to offer a few reasons why they like the bar of soap. Kids who shouted with glee when they won the Peeking Game suddenly mumble quietly and fidget.

The truth is, kids learn by modeling and learning from the behavior they see in their environment. That’s why school doesn’t just teach facts and dates and math and grammar, it teaches how to socially interact with others in an appropriate manner.

So it should be no surprise, really, that our children pick up not only our best traits — our honesty, sincerity, ethics and morals — but also some of our worse ones too.

Think you can avoid teaching your children this lesson? You can’t.

On average, adults lie in about 1 in 5 social interactions. Unless you’re prepared to become hyperaware and hypersensitive to your environment and interactions with others, it’s just a normal, everyday occurrence we all take for granted. There’s no getting around it.

The article doesn’t really have any suggestions on how to reduce the number of lies your child tells, or how to keep them from telling any in the first place. The key is to understand that it’s not your child’s fault he or she lies — it makes complete sense in some situations to do so.

What you can do is reinforce and reward the truth when you see your kid debating whether to tell a lie or not, and to try and curb your own lying, especially that done in front of your child. Talking to your child about the difference between social lies (“little white lies”) used to help smooth over our relationships with others, versus lies that matter may also be helpful, but only as the child is older and can understand the differentiation.

And if your child rarely lies, be thankful. He or she is in a class virtually unto themselves.

Why Do Kids Lie?

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Why Do Kids Lie?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 11 Feb 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.