Child Behavior: Why Preschoolers Lie

Hudson Valley Professor, Dr. Paul Schwartz, answers your questions about preschoolers that lie

Why Preschoolers Lie

Many parents often question if it's normal for their preschooler to lie. Many parents let the occasional “fib” go without questioning their preschooler, but when it comes to outlandish and full-blown lies parents often start questioning their parenting skills. There are several reasons why preschoolers lie and your preschooler is definitely not the first or last preschooler to ever tell a lie.

Here's what Dr. Paul Schwatz, professor of psychology and education at Mount St. Mary College, has to say to Hudson Valley parents on the issue of preschoolers who lie.

Preschoolers or even kindergarteners make up stories and often exaggerate, twist the truth, or even manufacture events, frequently blurring the distinction between reality and fantasy. For these children, lying doesn’t represent a lack of moral character or poor parenting. These preschoolers often distort reality in an attempt to be seen by their parents the way they believe their parents want them to be seen. Essentially, if you taught them not to engage in a particular behavior and they did, they might lie not out of malice or to be sneaky, but to reflects the way pre-schoolers see the world and themselves.

Sometimes a parent’s response to these “exaggerations” serves to reinforce and even generate this style of “lying.” The parent that pays excessive attention or demonstrates pleasure when their preschooler “makes up” these tales may be inadvertently rewarding the act of lying.

When a grade school-age child lies, it’s more deliberate than that of a pre-schooler. The older child knows the difference between reality and fantasy. When he lies he usually does so for a reason that makes sense to him, even if he knows it’s wrong. When attempting to correct lying in childhood, it’s more important for parents to get beyond the lie itself and question the “reason” for the child lying.

Why children lie

Avoiding Punishment — The most common reason preschoolers lie is to avoid punishment. A child who is punished too often either physically or emotionally by a very intimidating parent becomes encouraged to lie. The parent(s) may want to consider their type of response to their preschooler’s lying, the severity of the response and the frequency with which it occurs. It’s important for parents to realize the consequences of their behavior management or punishment style. It isn’t surprising that parents who “scare” their children when they do something wrong by hitting, shouting or verbally abusing them, encounter more compulsive lying from their preschooler than those that don’t.

Lying for attention — Sometimes when preschoolers lie it’s the only time parents pay any attention to them. Even though the child knows he won’t be believed and may be punished, it’s better than the parental indifference he receives. If parental interaction and attention cannot be won by appropriate behavior, it will be won by inappropriate behavior.

Vengeful lies — A child may lie to “get even” with parents for some believed wrongful act. Keep in mind this doesn’t have to be rational. A child, for example, may lie because he feels that the new baby is taking up too much of his parent’s time.

Status — A child may lie to enhance their own status or “identity” with a peer group, or to hide what might be viewed as a failure by their parents. As peers become more important, lying about oneself may help the child project and preserve a particular self-image to their peer group and themselves. This is especially common among adolescents, whose projected identity is of paramount importance for acceptance.

Taught to lie — A child who says she hates her sister and then is punished for it may learn that it is better to lie about your feelings than express them.
Modeling — The “white lie” by parents or a harmless excuse or a broken promise or “I had to lie because…” is often difficult for a preschooler to understand. She may take “acceptable” parental lying as approval to lie when you have a good reason. In turn, they’ll have their own “good reason” for the lie. Beware of the “do as I say not as I do” philosophy. They will invariably do as we do.

READ MORE: Child Behavior: Should Parents Punish Children When They Lie?  

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