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Why Do Children Lie?

Updated: Jan 31, 2020

Featured on the Hong Kong Economic Journal (May 26, 2017)

"I once did an informal survey asking parents what they think the most important character trait is. I gave them a wide range of choices including responsibility, perseverance, empathy, compassion, gratitude and kindness and the majority of people responded with their top choice as honesty. Just last week, I was giving a talk to secondary school students and when I asked what she thought was the most important character strength, she said honesty because without it, relationships can’t be built and having good relationships is a core part of a life of well-being.

So it seems pretty universal that students and parents alike value honesty. But the reality of the matter is that we have all lied. We value honesty but we have all fallen into the trap of lying. For some, it may be something small like saying “I’m fine” when someone asks you how you are but you really don’t want to talk about your terrible day but for others it may be something big like lying about taxes or infidelity. And similarly for children, there is a range of intensity of lying. And my belief is what is more important than reprimanding them for lying and stopping the behaviour straight away is to understand their motivations and intentions behind them. Did a child lie because he was scared of being punished if he were to tell the truth? Did she lie to her friend because the truth would hurt her feelings too much?

When it comes to looking at children and lying, I think it’s important to remember a couple of things:

1. Age matters

Every child will have a different developmental path but generally children aged 5 and under are still exploring their world, using their imagination to create stories and therefore, the line between fact and fiction may be blurred. You may hear a kindergartener tell you “I took the airplane today and saw many trees!” even though he was at school all day. It may have been that his class was reading a book about a boy taking an airplane and there were trees in the picture. His story was merely his way of ‘experiencing’ the book and retelling his experience. In such a situation, we can just