Child Behavior: Should Parents Punish Children When They Lie?

Plus, 6 ways to encourage your child to be truthful

Child Behavior by Dr Paul Schwartz

Hudson Valley Parent child behavior expert, Dr. Paul Schwartz, provides his insightful advice on the issue of children and lying.  Here, he speaks to whether or not to punish lying, and how to prevent it. 

Do I Punish Lying?

Punishing lying is tricky business.  Think of the child who broke his mother's China vase when she wasn’t home and denied it.  When his conscience won out a few days later he admitted it. To teach him a lesson his mother promptly restricted him to the house for his misdeed.  From this scenario, the boy learned that when he lies, he can avoid punishment, and when he tells the truth, he could get in trouble and pay the price. 

Another way to handle the situation is to praise the child for telling the truth and ask him to help contribute to replace the vase, teaching that honesty is rewarded with respect and you need to replace things you break.


Similarly, if we find out the truth and then punish the child, we might be teaching the child that he's not so much being punished for lying, but rather is being punished because the parent found out the truth.  The child then becomes innovative at concealing the truth in the future.

Watch Dr. Paul Schwartz discuss the difference between punishment and discipline.

How to Decrease or Prevent Lying

  • Don’t be too severe when children engage in misdeeds.  When children are  “afraid” of punishment they will often feel the need to present themselves in the best possible light. 

  •  Try to be appropriate models – when adults are truthful in their everyday lives children are more likely to be truthful. 

  •  Reward telling the truth – “I know how hard it was to tell me you broke the vase.  I’m very proud of you.”

  • Don’t embarrass your child when you find out the truth or ask a question you know the answer to – to “catch” him in a lie.  Don’t act like Columbo, its hard enough when you are “found out” don’t make it any harder.

  • Be consistent, don’t let a lie go unnoticed or unhandled – this encourages the child to lie in the future.  Your goal is to increase the desire for the child to tell the truth.

  • Teach about your disappointment and expectations about telling the truth, a little guilt can go a long way. Use punishment as your last resort.  To encourage a child to face the situation and still maintain their dignity, we as parents need to express our disappointment rather than our desire to retaliate with punishment.  Moderate feelings of guilt in children are an excellent deterrent to misbehavior.

Whatever intervention you take when your child lies, keep in mind that the overall goal of your actions is to encourage honesty in your child.  We want our children to be honest in the things they do and say.  Additionally, we want them to learn that lying isn’t appropriate not merely because it brings some type of punishment.

Paul Schwartz, Ph.D., is a professor at psychology and education at Mount Saint Mary College