The Reasons Why Children Tell Lies

Lying signals an unmet need or insecurity
small child hold the hand of a big person
© Can Stock Photo / Koka777

Lying: when a person knowingly tells a mistruth. Most of us learn from a young age that lying is most certainly bad. A broken record of our moral code constantly plays the refrain “Honesty is the best policy” as we grow and mature. As small children we are domesticated by these refrains and fall into the rules and rhythms of our world with this training. We are rewarded for good behaviour, receiving praise and acceptance. Bad behavior results in being shamed and being cast out, even momentarily, for not having followed the rules. Since we desire reward and abhor isolation, being “good” becomes our quest. So why do children still lie?

We are steeped in the belief that our children should not lie. The onus is put on the child to reign in their errant behavior and conform to domestication. If they fail to do so, we as parents and caregivers are left to worry about why and what it means for our child’s future. Or worse yet, what it says about our parenting and guidance. What if it means our child’s perceived failure is actually a reflection of our fail­ure as a parent? This leaves us feeling judged and cast out.

If this is the framework we exist in, we have little choice but to react. A good parent would not have a child who lies because we’d have done our job and not let them “get away with it.” But the messaging lurking behind these fears is simply rejection. We reject the child who lies just as we perceive we will be rejected by those who may judge us, including ourselves, for our failure. And most heartbreakingly, our child also rejects him or herself for their failure.

The lie of perfection

Most of this courses through our subconscious mind beyond awareness, but what if the uppity moral code that tells us lying is bad and good kids don’t lie is, in itself, its own lie?

Think about it: we were taught as little children that we shouldn’t lie, and then teach our children, in turn, to do the same. There is thus instilled in us and our children a pursuit of model behavior that includes the absence of lying. Honesty is integral to perfection and lying defaces that perfection. But it is a frustratingly unattainable goal, as lying, for better or for worse, is an inevitable part of being human.

When we say, “You should not lie,” we are already fabricating a mistruth. A belief in absolute honesty as perfection is elusive and unrealistic, and thus, in itself a lie. If we make that which is inevitable wrong, we shame our children for being who they are. These moments of shame spark experiences of rejection for our child. A child who is rejected simply for being human will eventually come to reject themselves. This rejection lives on in their minds, persisting into adulthood as that voice inside their head that admonishes them each time they step outside the constraints of perfection. You probably know that voice already. Each time we can’t live up to the illusion of perfection—an inevitable reality—we reject ourselves, a tragically avoidable lesson learned from an accumulation of childhood experiences, including being made wrong for lying.

The need for provision

Why is lying so inevitable? Why can’t we attain a perfect existence of honesty? Why can’t our children just fall into line and tell the truth?! The answer is that children (and grownups too!) lie to secure attachment. Lying is not a shortcoming inherent to the child, rather it is a manifestation of the child seeking to get his or her needs met. When a child lies they are simply communicating an absence of or insecurity about provision rather than signaling a need for correction.

When a child lies they are simply communicating an absence of or insecurity about provision rather than signaling a need for correction.

In understanding lying this way, the focus instantly shifts from the child’s act to the need that has gone unmet. And it is our job to take care of the child’s need, which means that when a child lies, the most significant behavioral change must be within the parent. That’s right. If your child is lying, you focus on changing your behavior rather than stomping out the lying antics of your child.

Seems counterintuitive, but when you understand the most profound need of the growing child, it becomes pretty clear that this is exactly how lying ought to be responded to. As human beings, we are organisms of attachment and seek to maintain that attachment at all costs. It is the motivation of our entire existence and the driving force of our lies.

The quest for belonging

The human child needs attachment to survive. They seek it hungrily and intuitively from the first moments of life. The need for attachment trumps everything else including the moral code of domestication. Knowing attachment is about survival, the child will go to any length to ensure their attachment needs are met, including lying. They are so desperate for the experience of connection that they will lie to escape punishment and being cast out, or to create a façade that serves the purpose of preserved connection.

The human child needs attachment to survive. They seek it hungrily and intuitively from the first moments of life. The need for attachment trumps everything else including the moral code of domestication.

The intuitive sense a child has of his or her needs within the attachment relationship plays out in a series of quests: when they are “the same as”, when they have earned their place, when they are significant enough, when they are worthy enough. Only then will the child have the experience of feeling as though they have secured these goals and have had their attachment needs met. And only then can they grow and mature as nature intended.

The perfect solution lies here

Think about how perfect lying is in terms of getting your own attachment needs met. Do you think you need to be more “the same as” someone else? You might lie to do that. Or feel the need to belong? You may lie to fit in. Need to be more significant or feel you matter more? Lies can help there too. Do you feel like you should be more worthy, have done it better, or be more anything to feel that sense of connection? Lies can make that happen.

Lying preserves or enhances the perceived experience of attachment within our relationships. This means that lying is an issue with the attachment connection rather than a failing in the developing child. And if the issue is a perceived lack of attachment connection, the answer is to fill up the child’s need for connection. Take care of what it is the child is seeking and the child will no longer have to create ways of having his attachment needs met on his own. Rather the needs will be met appropriately within the context of the parent-child or big person-child attachment relationship.

Instead of punishing your lying child or feeling ashamed of yourself as a parent, think of lying as a gift. A light has been shone on your child’s need for an even bigger sense of connection and belonging than what has already been provided. This is true regardless of whether your child lied to you, a friend, a coach, a teacher, an uncle, or a babysitter. You, the key and primary attachment figure, are the only one who is able to answer the attachment call in the deeply meaningful way that will quiet your child’s quest for connection—within or beyond this relationship.

Cultivating honesty

Understanding lying as an innocent and intuitive behavior that serves to heighten experiences of connection, you are now able to capably step in and take action as the parent.

Give of yourself

Start by thinking about how to give your child more of you physically. Are you spending time with them each morning before sending them off in the day or are your mornings characterized by stress and rushing about? Set your alarm clock 15 minutes earlier every day and use that time for the purpose of one-to-one connection with your child. Enjoy a meal or a warm drink together. Have some cuddly morning story time. Schedule time to head out into nature, to the park, or for a walk. Spend time together. It has been said that for a child love is spelled t-i-m-e.

Create a tribe

Consider how you have cultivated, within your relationship with your child (and your family), the sense of a tribe and belonging. Do you have rituals and traditions? Do you have a way of saying hello, goodbye, goodnight? Do you have family traits that you all celebrate, laugh about, are the stuff of legend? Does your child experience you as the kind of big person that steps in capably and effectively on their behalf to protect them? Do they feel truly seen and truly heard by you? Do they know they can rest into your safe embrace of collective belonging?

Make them matter

Now think about whether or not your child feels like they matter. Does your child have a deeply felt sense of significance to you, as cultivated by you? Do they see that shining right out of your eyes and back into their soul? Does your child, at the core of who they are, know that beyond everything else, you think they are the most incredible creature to have walked this planet in this history of ever? (Equal to their siblings. Of course.)

Prioritize connection

Broaden the lens a little more and think about the day-to-day climate of your child’s world, as orchestrated by you. Have you taken huge strides towards cultivating a pervasive experience of attachment and connection for your child and with your child? What about how you discipline them? Is it discipline through connection or separation? What about how to stay connected to them while apart? What about moving fiercely and swiftly to alter their world on account of knowing them more expertly than any other adult can possibly know them?

These are the ways that you step in to have your child bathed in the ongoing and enduring experience of attachment. Your child’s most foundational need of connectedness will thus be met in the way that was intended—through his or her relationship with you. And when this happens, the child’s need to lie in order to secure the attachment relationship will subside, whether it is within or outside of your relationship—so powerful is the sense of belonging that is provided by the parent-child connection.

Set Boundaries

All of this is not to say that you just let the lying slide and never address it directly. You will first need to do all of the things mentioned here to underscore the foundational strength of the attachment relationship. And then you will step in fully in your role as a parent, which includes letting your child know exactly where the boundaries exist and what the expectations are. You will tell your child that honesty is how you roll. Without invoking ideals of virtue, you will let your child know that telling the truth is part of how we relate to each other.

The difference between what happens next and a lot of conventional parenting is that your child will hear all of this within an energy field of connection, generosity, and provision. Contrary to what others might think you should do, you will not punish your child for pursuing their foundational need of attachment. They will not be shamed for failing at perfection. You will not make them wrong for being human. Rather you will provide the needed sense of connection while compassionately defining the boundaries. And with this, your child comes to know the truth of acceptance, having been saved from the lie of perfection.