Award-winning author, L.R.Knost

Five Gentle Tools for Handling Lying

preschooler (2)[Reprinted from Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood by L.R.Knost. Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages and The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline also available through Amazon and other major retailers.]

The line between fantasy and reality is very blurry for small children. They still believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. They are convinced that they can talk to animals and can fly if they wear a cape and are faster runners if they wear their ‘fast shoes.’ They think the moon follows them home and that if they stretch as tall as they can, they can touch the stars. It’s one of the most beautiful and celebrated facets of the innocence of childhood, but also one of the most misunderstood.

When a little boy puts a bowl on his head and makes up a fantastic story about rocketing to the moon in a cardboard spaceship, adults smile nostalgically and applaud his imagination. When that same little boy finds himself stuck in the uncomfortable position of being caught sneaking cookies from the pantry and makes up a story about the cookies accidentally falling off of the shelf into his mouth, those same adults often shame the child.

When a little girl perches on the arm of the sofa and tells a tall tale about pirates and stormy seas and walking the plank, her parents will laugh and join in the fun, but then she will often be punished if she spins a tale to cover her tracks after she stuffs a towel down the toilet to see if it will flush and finds out that stuffed up toilets overflow instead.

Communication is a complex skill, full of hidden nuances and subtle connotations and social mores that are far, far beyond the capacity of young children to understand. And yet they are often held to an impossible standard of perfection by the adults in their life. Interestingly, those adults holding them to such a high standard rarely hold themselves to the same standard, though. What adult, when faced with a traffic fine for speeding, hasn’t protested that they didn’t know they were going over the speed limit? How often do adults say “I love your new haircut” or “You haven’t aged a day” when the opposite is true? How many adults call out of work sick when they aren’t actually sick or return something to the store after using it and say it’s unused or tell their spouse to say they aren’t home when a phone call comes in they don’t want to answer?

How, then, when adults are the ones modeling how communication should be used, can they expect children to somehow know instinctively when it is and isn’t acceptable to lie? How can parents expect children to have the fortitude and maturity to simply accept the discomfort of telling the truth when they, themselves, so easily and often lie to avoid their own discomfort?

And yet parents are often horrified and embarrassed when their child lies. So much so, in fact, that they react to their own emotions instead of responding appropriately to the child and the situation, and they end up shaming and/or punishing their child.

Think about it realistically for a moment, though. If children lie because they’ve seen the adults in their life lie, is shaming or punishing them fair? If they lie because they are uncomfortable and fearful, will making them more uncomfortable and fearful solve the problem? If they lie because it’s normal for their developmental stage, does it seem reasonable to hold them accountable for it?

Having a few tools ready and available in your parenting ‘toolbox’ helps to avoid these ineffective and rather hypocritical adult reactions to children lying:

First, be aware that the safer your children feel with you, the less likely they will be to lie. Removing the motivation of fear and discomfort will go a long way toward making your children trust you with the truth, no matter what it is.

Second, even when children feel safe they may lie simply because small children often say how they wish things were and really believe they can make it happen just by saying it! Bearing this in mind can help you to see that innocent imagination at work that you enjoy so much in other settings and help you to exercise more patience and understanding.

Third, when confronted with a lie, the best response is to calmly state the truth yourself, assure the child that they can always tell you the truth, and then move on without punishing the lie or giving the lie any more power or attention.

Fourth, all behavior, including lying, is communication. Focusing on the need behind the behavior instead of the behavior itself (or the lie it prompted) will actually solve the problem rather than simply address the symptom of the problem.

Fifth, keeping in mind that, over time, your children will mature enough to verbalize their needs instead of acting them out if their needs are met consistently and with understanding and respect while they are younger will help you to stay calm and focused. The end result will be healthy communication and trust with no need to lie.

Imagination truly is the language of childhood. It only makes sense to try to understand their language instead of insisting they perfect ours. We are, after all, the only adults in the relationship!

Related posts:

12 Steps to Gentle Parenting

Practical, Gentle, Effective Discipline

200 Ways to Bless Your Children with a Happy Childhood

10 Ways to Play with your Children when Play is the Last Thing on your Mind

29 Messages in a Bottle

12 Tips for Gently Parenting Your Adult Children (Hint: It starts when they’re newborns!)

Tots to Teens~Communication Through the Ages and Stages


Award-winnning author, L.R.Knost, is the founder and director of the children's rights advocacy and family consulting group, Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, and Editor-in-Chief of Holistic Parenting Magazine. Books by L.R.Knost include Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood ; Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages ; The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline ; and Jesus, the Gentle Parent: Gentle Christian Parenting the first four books in the Little Hearts Handbook gentle parenting series, and children’s picture books Petey’s Listening Ears and the soon-to-be-released Grumpykins series.

6 Responses

  1. Leonie

    This is just what I needed to read after a pretty complex situation with my 5 year old today. I’m so pleased with how I handled things and reassured my son that he could always tell me anything because then we can work things out together as a team. Thank you for your inspiring words and providing us with a place to say how hard things can sometimes be without being judged.

    April 3, 2013 at 8:10 pm

    • L.R. Knost

      That’s so awesome, mama! 🙂

      April 3, 2013 at 8:30 pm

  2. Marie

    What if you are unsure if they are lying, but would like to know if they are being truthful. My daughter lies about SO many things, and we converse gently, etc. I don’t really know how to deal with it, it’s almost like she lies for fun, which I know is unreasonable. However some thing that I’m not sure if she’s telling the truth or lying so I ask her again and she admits its a lie. It’s almost everyday and I’m not sure how to handle it. I tell her it hurts my feelings that she doesn’t tell me the truth and I want her to feel like she can, I ask her how I can help her to trust me and she just says she doesn’t know.

    April 4, 2013 at 12:52 am

    • L.R. Knost

      It very well may not be a trust issue, mama, and instead just a developmental stage or a bid for attention. To avoid turning it into a powerplay, try not to converse about it or to tell her it hurts your feelings or to give the lie itself any more attention than you have to. Focus your attention on your child by looking past the lie and the behavior or situation that prompted the lie and connect with her through play, reading together, letting her help you with making meals, etc. If you continue to see a concerning pattern, begin to look more deeply into things that might be causing her to act out, though. Bullying at school, discomfort with a new teacher, a recent move or change in your family dynamic, etc. are all things that she may not be able to talk about, but may be prompting her behavior. As always, if you believe that more is going on than you can handle, consult your pediatrician or school/church counselor. Hope that helps!

      April 4, 2013 at 5:42 pm

      • Marie

        We did move within the last year, I will definitely keep my eye out for outside concerns and stop confronting her with it and try to connect more 🙂 Thank you!

        April 5, 2013 at 1:35 pm

  3. Amanda

    I’m struggling in this area right now with my 2 oldest kids. Ages 10 (next month) and 7 1/2. They are lying about doing their chores, which could mean life or death to our chickens if they don’t properly feed and water them, (this is mostly just laziness and I need to be more diligent in following up and making sure they do their chores properly rather than just trusting them to do what they are supposed to do) all the way to lying about eating something. Like, our neighbor asked me how I liked the kohlrabi he gave us and I said I didn’t get any, and my oldest says she ate it. Yet, the next to oldest says she didn’t eat it, but threw it in the corn field. ???? Obviously it’s not really about the food as I really don’t care one way or the other, but I’m confused as to why the need to lie about it at all?

    August 7, 2013 at 11:48 pm

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