Positive Parenting when Children Tell Tall-Tales, Fibs and Lies

Positive Parenting when Children Tell Tall-Tales, Fibs and Lies

“My other mom lives down the street in that green house and she lets me play with the kitchen scissors all the time.” –told by Nicolas, age 4.

Children lie, tell fibs, stretch a tale and tattle-tale. Lying, is actually a sign of intelligence.

Nevertheless, lying is sometimes inappropriate and as parents it can be difficult to deal with lies. When our children lie, it can lead to feelings of frustration, doubt, anger, confusion or even shame. Once the lie is out there, it can be difficult to know how to proceed.

To help children learn the value of honesty and integrity, aside from modeling these very values in daily interactions, it is also helpful to understand the different types of lies, why children lie and what reactions can be helpful or hurtful.

Not all lies are created equal

Lies can come in many shapes in forms; fantasy, wishful thinking, a way to deal with hurt feelings or the hopes of avoiding consequences and punishment. What they all have in common is the fact that lies are words strung together to create a reality in your child’s mind and world. Children are not always lying to be deceitful, dishonest or bad. Recognizing the type of lie your child is telling can be a really powerful window into your child’s world and give you the very tools to best deal with the situation at hand.

Children lie as a means of exploring fantasy and their imagination

“I just saw a hippopotamus cross the street and put on a purple hat and blue sneakers” or “There is a space alien living inside my closet and he likes to eat pizza and chips.” These lies are fantasies, stories, imaginative play at its very best! These types of lies are commonly told by preschoolers and are an exploration of reality and fantasy.

What to do: These lies can be left alone or simply used to fuel an imaginative conversation. Asking questions like “And what else does the alien like to eat?” or “Did the hippo also have socks on?” Show your child that you are interested in their world and help them develop their imagination.
What to Avoid: Try not to tell your child they are being ridiculous or stupid and avoid phrases like “there is no such thing, quit lying” as it can crush their creativity and these fibs are actually very healthy expressions of play.

Children tell lies as expressions of wishful thinking

“At my friends house their mom said I can have ten pieces of candy and don’t need to brush teeth.” Such lies are reflections of what a child is wishing for, basically an alternate reality where the child’s ideas and will is in charge.

What to do: Acknowledge the ideas behind the lies while also offering alternatives that are empathetic and reflect your values.

In this case it might sounds like  “oh ten pieces of candy would be delicious and tooth brushing can take a while. It’s just not healthy for you, I care about you and your teeth. How about two pieces of candy and we can sing a song while we brush teeth?”

or

“Ten pieces of candy – that sure would be a lot to eat at once, in our family we try to eat only the very healthiest of foods, so how about this piece of fruit leather as a treat instead?”

child tells tall tales how to discipline

It’s perfectly ok to stick to your values and set a limit.  What is important is to recognize your child’s wishes and communicate that so he knows you are listening.

What to avoid: Try not to lecture or tell your child their wishes are unimportant. Unless you suspect that a lie pertains to some serious matter like injury or damage to property, avoid threatening to check up with the other person in the story, in this case, the other mom.

Lying to avoid punishment and or consequences

Often children will lie to get their way, to make sure the outcome is to their favor or most commonly to avoid being punished. “I found that vase already broken when I came into the room.”

A common sign that the story offered is a lie is that it goes on and on without any prompting.  “I suppose the wind from that window over there could have knocked it down, I actually went ahead and closed it up and drew the curtains shut to avoid anything else getting knocked down…”

when a child tells a lie how to discipline

What to avoid when your child tells lie

Calling your child a liar or demanding the truth and immediately punishing is likely to teach your child to just be sneaky the next time around. Avoid phrases like “stop being a liar and tell me what happened….” or “tell me why you did this right now and then you are grounded until tomorrow.”

That approach creates a very negative cycle of communication. It’s likely that your child will tell more lies to avoid any kind of punishment. There is a more positive and helpful way to help your child learn to tell the truth.

What to do when you know your child has told a lie

If you know that your child is lying and they have acted in a way that has broken, destroyed or otherwise harmed something or someone it can be really beneficial to just listen at first.

Ask in a sincere way, “What can you tell me about this broken vase?” to start a dialogue. If you have encouraged your child to tell the truth in the past it is likely that they will once again cooperate with you.

If you have used punishment in the past, it’s never too late to look at positive alternatives,. Go ahead and explain to your child that you value and welcome honesty. Make it even more clear that you will not be punishing your child for telling the truth, even if they admit to having done something wrong.

The next step is to follow-through with your words (otherwise it would be modeling how to lie)  and find an appropriate solution with your child. How can you help your child repair the situation? Can your child fix or replace the broken item? How can you encourage your child to make amends for telling a lie and to whoever may have been hurt by the lie?

Trust your child’s ability to learn the value of honesty, problem solving and to do better next time. 

Have you heard any interesting fibs lately? How do you deal with your child when he/she lies to you?

Peace & Be Well,

Ariadne

 

Related Reading
Twelve Alternatives to Time Out: Connected Discipline Tools for Raising Cooperative Children

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Ariadne is a happy and busy mama to three children. She practices peaceful, playful, responsive parenting and is passionate about all things parenting and chocolate. Ariadne has a Masters in Psychology and is a certified Positive Discipline Parenting Educator. She lives on top of a beautiful mountain with her family, one cuddly dog and "bluey" the fish.

26 Responses to Positive Parenting when Children Tell Tall-Tales, Fibs and Lies

  1. Dear Adrianne,
    I must start by saying I highly appreciate all your posts and I love your advices. I am mom of an almost 4 years old and I am considered “desperate” about my child by parents I consider “not my style”, to say the least. Just because I treat him like a person fully able to make his own choices (of course appropriate to age) and just because I try to be a good mom (applying positive parenting :))). I consider my child the best thing that ever happened to me and my husband.
    Still, I have a big issue: what should I do if people that take care of my child when I am not around (grandparents or kinder garden educators) do not share my values and principles (positive parenting) in raising a child? More, what can I do when parents of my child’s friends are not into parenting so much and do not allow so much freedom as a child needs? My child often says to his friends: “my mom allows me to sit in the sand without shoes or allows me to splash the rain water lakes” or things like this…I don’t want to tell my child to do something just because other kids are not allowed to do the same…Grandparents do, and I cannot change their thinking. I want them to understand that my child can be and is different and every child is different and every human is different and must be allowed to be different…but no result …they know better :)))))
    What do you think?

    • Hi Veronica,
      Firstly, thank you so kindly for your feedback!

      One of the best ways I think to influence others about a positive approach to parenting is to keep doing what works for you, trust your connection to your child and letting the results shine through. I hear your concern here about your child and I can see you really care about your child so very much! I think something to think about here is balancing the needs of your child and the boundaries of others. It’s often the case that different families/ family members / educators have different rules and it is alright for children to learn to have flexibility and respect around such boundaries. For instance, in my home the children can jump on beds as a game and to play as long as they are safe about it. If they go to another house and wish to jump on the bed, they have learned it is important to ask the family if this is alright and if it is not, they know that it’s important to respect that boundary. Freedom comes with responsibility and children can learn that what is ok in one place may not always be ok at another place. In the same way children can also learn that some people are more open to certain ideas than others and talking to our children about that is a great way for them to make these associations true. Children can start to create ideas for example let’s say you think it’s ok to splash a puddle but grampa does not, the child may begin to think: “my mom is ok with me splashing in puddles so I will do that with mom! Grampa doesn’t like me to splash in puddles but he does like to read me stories…” of course if your child is being treated in a disrespectful way by any caregivers it would probably be helpful to have a conversation or meeting to discover where the challenges are and approach it from a perspective or interest to listen and problem solve. Perhaps the caregivers don’t know any alternatives to what they are doing but would be willing to try any that you can suggest! I hope this is helpful to you. Peace & be well.

  2. so what do you think we should do if my 5 yr old is lying about something that happened in school and I came to find out from his teacher? For example, one day he said he had a treat from his school, because there was a friend’s birthday and that he did not want to eat the same kind of treat from our house. I believed him and let go. Later I got a mail from the teacher saying that he took one of it and was sitting there looking at other things, while the rest of the class waited for him to go out and play. they waited for a long time and finally teacher asked him to do something about it and he threw it away…I know this is just about snack and he said it because he doesn’t want to eat it/to avoid my ‘confrontation’….but I was giving an example..thanks so much..

    • S, children are more likely to lie if they are afraid that the reaction from the parent will lead to as you said a confrontation, a bad consequence or something that will feel uncomfortable. It can often be helpful to have a conversation about the importance of telling the truth, assuring the child that no matter what the goal will be to “problem solve” and not to make the child feel poorly about himself. If you have in the past reacted in a way that was scary or punished for lying, it would be most helpful to talk about those times, explain that you would like to do things differently now and then keep your promise. Also if your child happens to do something “wrong” but tells you about it, reacting positively is much more helpful than a negative reaction. For example, let’s say a child breaks something, the positve reaction could be “I appreciate you letting me know you broke that, I’d like some help putting it back together” and the negative reaction would be “HOW COULD YOU, look at all the work you are giving me!” the positive reaction creates space for cooperation, understanding and learning. It keeps the child feeling like he can share things, even if they were a mistake and that he will receive loving guidance and support to make things better again. The more you can create a positive atmosphere that is geared towards solutions and cooperation the more likely your child is to share the truth, even if the truth is something you may have disliked in the past.I hope that is helpful to you!

      • Dear Ariadne,

        Thank you sooo much for the reply!! Yes, it is helpful. I knew my reaction has to be ‘edited’,but didn’t know what to do at that moment! But I never gave him punishment or never said thing like “HOW COULD YOU’ or something–but told him 3 or 4 times that telling the truth is what makes him a ‘big boy’..that’s what makes others and God happy…Anyway, I will consider your suggestions for any future responses. I learned something new today and I am happy about it. Thanks again!
        I may come back for any other situations!!

  3. Thankyou for the article, it comes at a very appropriate time for my family!
    I have a question I’m hoping you can help me with though.. My 3 yo currently lies to avoid getting into trouble about things he has done, and won’t tell the truth even after I explain that I won’t be upset if he is honest.
    I’m at a loss where to go from there.. It’s obvious what he has done but he won’t admit to it, and we don’t punish him harshly normally so I’m unsure why he is trying to avoid the situation.
    Do you have any advice I could use when this happens?
    Thank you 🙂

    • Leah,
      Why do you think your 3 year old is unwilling to say what he did and what would you like to see happen? Three year olds are often impulsive and do things without thinking through what will really happen simply because in that moment they are curious and trying to understand or explore things. It’s unlikely that they will openly admit to doing something wrong, mostly because they don’t want to dissapoint those they love. That in itself is a good sign that they “know” it was a mistake. Keeping an attitude of guidance and teaching, often it’s helpful to simply supply an alternative or the missing information. For example saying “I see you did (insert unwantted action) and next time I would like you to do (insert acceptable actions) instead.” The calmer you can approach these mistakes and misteps the more trust you foster and the more they are willing to follow your guidance. Don’t forget to house-proof and take time to offfer appropriate outlets for their curiosity. Don’t set him up for more lies by asking questions he can’t answer “did you eat the cookies?” for example, when you know he did doesn’t work as well as saying “I noticed you ate the cookies, I believe you forgot to ask me about that first. Please ask me next time.” hope that helps!

  4. My 4-year old routinely says she “already brushed her teeth” when she doesn’t feel like brushing them. I don’t want to force her to brush her teeth if she already has, but I also don’t want her to think that it’s OK to lie to get out of her responsibilities, so I often end up asking her Dad if he has already helped her brush her teeth. Most of the time it’s No, but sometimes Yes. I resent having to check up on what she says because I want to be able to trust that she is telling the truth. Another one: I noticed a big poop in the toilet and when I commented, “There’s a big poop in the toilet!” (implying that she forgot to flush), she lied to me: “It wasn’t me; it was Daddy”. I knew it wasn’t him because he wasn’t home at the time, so I said “He would have flushed the toilet”. But she insisted on her story.

    • Hi Denise,

      It’s tricky when children lie, it can feel like they are being disrespectful, often they just don’t want to upset their parent…so, I find it more helpful to the child to help them answer truthfully. In the case of the poop, instead of saying “There’s a big poop in the toilet” I might say “I noticed you forgot to flush, could you please do that now?” That second option gives the children information without setting them up to possibly lie. As far as the teeth brushing, I wonder if your daughter has just become used to you checking up on her? Could you just go together to the bathroom until it becomes very routine for her do it? Could you see it as an excuse to spend a few minutes together, since she is only 4 I bet she would love the company from mom!

  5. My 6 year old has, and has had, a very active imagination since she was tiny. She often makes up very vivid stories, and creates very complicated alternate realities. It can be often be very challenging to tell when she is making something up, or relating an actual experience. I am happy to play along with her imagination, and when I know her story is an act of wish fulfillment I will often respond to what she tells me by acknowledging she really wishes it had happened that way. My biggest concern is that she is in school and when she comes home and tells me about her day I never know what is true and what is not. Last year I often found out from her teacher that what she was telling me never happened… This is concerning for me, as a parent I want to know what goes on in the 7+ hours she is away from me; and we moved over the summer so she is at a new school in a new state which I am very unfamiliar with. I talk with her about the importance of telling me what really happened at school, and I have explained many times why it is important to tell me the truth about what happens when she isn’t with me. We have also talked about wishing things had happened differently and how we can talk about that while talking about what really occurred. However, I still find that she is only giving me parts of what really happened and a lot of what she imagined/wished/made-up. Any suggestions on how I can encourage her to convey more what has transpired?
    Thank you in advance!

    • Dear Kristin, your daughters active imagination sounds both lovely and challenging. I understand that moving also stirs up all sorts of emotions and doubts (I have moved with my children a few times as well) I wish I could be a fly on the wall at school so I could hear and see it all…In the end, we have to trust our children to be capable of handling their interactions with peers and teacher with the tools and values we give them at home. Is your daughter maybe using her imagination to deal with things she dislikes about the move? Maybe you can open the door for her to talk about her wishes and desires, even if in a magical way so you can hear her side of the story and what moving felt like for her? One question that can help with the school stories is “Do you wish that had happened?” If you continue to be a safe place, she will continue to talk and tell you things. If you want more concrete information from school it may also help to ask the teacher for more information directly (a program, curriculum plan, just a short meeting?), your daughter is probably more focused on making friends and learning than reporting her daily movements around school – which is her job at her age. Hang in there and I hope your new town feels more like home sooner than later.

  6. Ariadne, My 10 year-old son just started lying last year about his schoolwork. He would tell me that he finished all of his work at school. Then, he came home with an F on his report card (from a kid who had never received a B)! I had a conference with his teacher, and she told me that he had not done any of the daily writing assignments all quarter. In fact, he had done next to nothing all year. My son was typically a great student. At soccer practice and scout meetings, he is almost always the one in proper uniform, paying attention, and demonstrating what the other kids should be doing. Suddenly, he doesn’t do anything in class. When I asked him about it, he said, “I just didn’t want to do it.” I replied, “Didn’t you realize that all of this would come out in the end?” He said that of course, he did, but still just didn’t want to do the work. He managed to keep up with about 50% of the writing assignments for the rest of the year. Consequently, he has had no video games, television, or internet access for over a year. The worst part is not just the frustration, but also that I just can’t stand my own son any more. He is nothing but a liar. We’ve become more like roommates these days. Is this a phase? I’m ready to give up and just banish him to his mother’s house, and be done with it.

    • John, from what you have shared, I gather you care a great deal about your son being honest and you are trying to offer him self-discipline. What I also noticed is that taking away video games, telebision and internet isn’t actually getting the results you were hoping for. Children when they feel punished and misunderstood tend to do worse, not better. Can you spend sometime with your son, just being together, doing some activities you enjoy together so you can re-connect on a father and son level? At age 10, your son doesn’t need a roommate but he would probably welcome and love having you offer him some one on one attention. You can tell your son you wish for him to succeed, that you believe in him and that you want to help him get back on track (highlight his positives!) Make an agreement about homework times, tell him you would love to read his work, ask him how you can help (keep him company, find a tutor, provide reading materials…not you doing the work for him!). Also as far as the separation from mom (It reads like there was one from your comment, have you talked about this together? Does your son feel at fault, confused, sad? Maybe some mentoring or counseling would be helpful for that!) I encourage you to work on repairing your relationship if you are willing, it’s not too late and you will both benefit tremendously.

    • Belinda,
      some children do take things with them, it can be because they are sad the “fun” or experience is coming to an end, because they find it difficult to transition, because it’s nice and they are pretty sure they can’t take it or to have a little reminder of what they did. It’s alright in these situations to explain that taking things without asking is not acceptable and to explain the child will need to return it and apologize. It’s a difficult situation and children may cry, refuse, shy away. Mostly, because inwards, they know it wasn’t right… with gentle, shame free, kind and firm guidance, if addressed early and well, the child will stop taking things. A great practice is to instill in the child the courage to ask “I really like this, may I borrow it until tomorrow/next time we see each other?” and then help them follow through with bringing it back.

  7. Wow! I love this article. It is so helfpful in clarifying that our responses to lying is more important than the lie. I likes that you normalized wishful thinking and fantasy lies for younger children and how that can promote creativity.

    I hope to share your positive alternates in my continued work with families. Thank you!!

  8. Hi, My 6 year old son is always making up tall tales. He has told his friends that he was in the movie Star Wars, told them he’s from Australia, etc. and those kids have come up to me and asked if he really did those things. He is always making up outlandish lies/stories that he tells me and he is so convincing, if I didn’t know any better I would believe him. We have talked about lying and how it can cause people to not trust you. I asked him why he makes stuff up, he says, “Because it’s fun” and “because I have so much energy and I want to talk a lot”. I tried encouraging him to write his stories down and even have “story time” where he can be creative and make up anything he wants, but he continues to tell these tall tales to everyone around him. What should I do? Thanks

    • Hi Elisa,
      so the key here is to help your son balance imagination and reality. Telling too many fibs at age 6 would only be a concern is if it’s interfering with life. Example with his friendships, or if he is having a hard time separating from stories and reality, such as making up stories that could create a difficult situation for someone else (examples would be “the teacher hit me today when they didn’t or the store clerk gave me this toy for free…when they didn’t) such lies can be a concern if it’s happening all the time. If it’s occasional it’s in line with his age.

      For many children, especially between ages 6 and 9, story telling can be a way to deal with emotions in a very safe way. “I was in star wars movie” could be code for “I hope my friends accept me AND think I am super cool…because I am feeling a bit left out / unsure about our friendship or…..” What do you think he is trying to tell you with these stories? There is research that supports the idea that exposure to too much screen time and stories, particularly violent ones, leads chilren to feel stuck inventing stories. Does he just want to be heard?

      If these fibs are not interferring with friendships and trust than it’s wonderful to allow that imagination to grow!

      Sometimes listening to those stories and just saying “so is this what you wish had happened?” opens the window for the child to correct himself “yeah, that was a stor… or Actually it’s true!”

      Also I think you are on to something when you say you encouraged a “story time” do you think it would appeal to your son to use something like a microphone to record his stories? or a video camera to make short films with figures like lego? Or drawing a cartoon strip? This can be a very constructive way to help him differentiate reality and stories.

      Imaginative play is great – and children do eventually start to stay more in reality. One big thing to avoid if you are truly worried is exposure to media violence at this age – especially for highly imaginative kids, it’s just too much for children to understand and they can’t separate what goes on tv and games to real life and this can create a loop of being stuck in imagined danger.

      I hope this helps!

      • Thanks for your response! I like those ideas. He absolutely is not exposed to any violence. He doesn’t even watch very much t.v. and when he does, it is nick jr. and educational stuff. His favorite show is ‘How it’s Made’. I do not watch the news or violent t.v. myself either. I do think it’s possible that he wants his friends to think he’s cool. He has expressed sometimes that he feels like kids don’t always want to play with him. I love his imagination, but I do hope that he figures out that he doesn’t have to pretend to be something he is not in order to make friends.

  9. Dear Ariadne,
    My 8 year old often tells imaginary stories along with the real ones. For eg, when he starts talking about some incident at school, at one point , the reality stops and his imagination takes over. When the story part comes, i always say, ‘wow story time’, and then we both laugh and go on. I have at times talked to him about honesty and consequences if we tell lie etc.
    But yesterday one of my friends whose child happens to be at the same school messaged me saying she is sorry for what happened to my son last Friday. i was naturally at shock and it seems he told a number of students at school that he was bitten by a snake while he was trying to throw it by its tail. (he is very very much interested in animals, esp. reptiles.. he does watch only animal related programs on TV) He was also having a bandage at his wrist at school for the last 3 days it seems!! imagine… his principal announced in the school assembly about this (his heroic effort) yesterday and everyone knows!! He was warned and grounded from yesterday. we both have also talked to him . (it seems he had faced some slight bullying at school. seems he wanted some attention.) Do you think he might become a habitual lier? how do i make sure it doesn’t happen again? what is the right move I have to take with the school? I have asked for an appointment tomorrow. Thank you very much . your reply is much appreciated.

    • Nancy,
      It seems from what you have shared that finding a creative outlet for your son would be quite beneficial. The school counselor might be a good resource for you to talk to someone on a personal basis as well. It’s quite normal for some children to tell these big elaborate stories – often these same children grow up to work in very creative and resourceful positions. The aim at age 8, 9 and as he grows would be to find a positive way for him to use this creativity without having it become an issue with daily life. A journal, a teather class, painting, gymnastics are just some possibilities… Certainly continuing to talk together about reality vs. story would be good – with the aim of not shaming but rather understanding and helping his find that outlet. hope that helps.

  10. Hi Ariadne. My son is 3.5 and has recently told someone at nursery that his dad hits him, first his teacher and then another child. He doesn’t seem to grasp the concept of lying yet and I certainly don’t think that it was done maliciously but it’s becoming a serious problem. Any ideas on how to handle this? Many thanks Ela

  11. Hi Ariadne. I have a 4.5 year old granddaughter who allegedly told her mother that I said mommy controls daddys money because she has sex with him. I never said anything of the sort and would not say anything so inappropriate to any child. It has caused major strife and I want to know how to handle this and where could a preschooler come up with this?

    • Hi Pamela,

      This sounds like an issue best solved between adults. It would be too much to expect the 4.5 year old to even understand the weight of her words. I would encourage you to try and talk between adults, face to face and state with honesty and kindness that you would like to manage this situation peacefully. Sometimes conflicts begin and while the source may not be exactly accurate, they bring forth tensions that need resolving. The opportunity to make amends and solve conflicts is a way to tweak your relationship, speak honestly and try to improve your relationship. From your message it sounds like you are hurt by the idea that you would say something inappropriate and that is very understandable. Your attitude in how you handle yourself to resolve this is an opportunity to demonstrate compassion, respect and model conflict resolution. Maybe talk to a good friend who can listen to your feelings first before so you are not holding tension and stress around this situation. If your granddaughter keeps coming up with such language try to notice where it may be coming from (a tv in the background, songs on the radio, other friends etc…) so you can address that as well. best wishes.

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