What to Do With a Child That Lies (Including Exactly How to Respond)

Little kids say the darndest things—and hardly any of them are true. They deny they hit their sister when you were standing two feet away witnessing the Real Housewives-style hair pull. Or insist they absolutely do not, under any circumstances, need to use the potty, as you watch their lavender leggings soak to a deep purple (Hey, YOU try walking away from a Barbie Dream House). Equal parts adorable and insanity-stoking, this behavior most often leaves moms at a loss. Here, experts offer a script for how to respond.

7 Easy (and Brain-Stimulating) Activities for Toddlers

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1. Be Proud

It helps to know that all children lie, some as early as age two. The average six-year-old is even said to lie hourly. All this truth-stretching is, according to science, a sign of creativity and intelligence. So the next time your kid tells you he didn’t make the mess you’re asking him to clean up (when, like, literally no one else is home), don’t get mad—get braggy. Per The New York Times: “Why do some children start lying at an earlier age than others? What separates them from their more honest peers? The short answer is that they are smarter… Young liars are even more socially adept and well adjusted, according to recent studies of preschoolers.”

2. Consider Their Motivation

Developmentally, small children often have a hard time distinguishing fantasy from reality. Magical thinking is totally age-appropriate. Some may even lie to prepare themselves for tackling a challenging task, writes parenting guru Janet Lansbury. So if your child tells you she climbed to the top of the jungle gym when you know full well she hasn’t yet worked up the courage to scale the second rung, resist the urge to set her straight. She may in fact be visualizing future success—a process we’d praise if an adult did it. Writes Lansbury: “These projections can help [children] shore up the courage to do it next time.”

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3. Use Positive Reinforcement

In certain safety situations, discovering the truth is essential (Did your child actually swallow the Lego, or is he just pretending?). Instead of punishing children for lying, tell them, “I won’t be mad if you lied; I’m just trying to understand the truth. I’ll be so proud of you if you can tell me what really happened.”

4. Amp Up Your Empathy

When a child lies because he fears our reaction, Lansbury advises we “Create safety with nonjudgmental responses like, ‘I hear you saying you didn’t hit your brother. It seems that he was hit. Please let me know whenever you feel like hitting, so I can be there to keep you safe.’”

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5. Keep Calm And Carry On

Lansbury points out that toddlers are likely testing us when they try out fibbing, seeing what it will take to get us all ruffled and revved up. Don’t take the bait. “Disempower these tests by taking them in stride and connecting lightly and knowingly,” she advises. “Hmm… you didn’t let the dog out, and yet out he is… Verrrry mysterious.” Parenting writer Melanie Pinola offers a great way to pivot from a lie to get the results you want: “Instead of saying ‘Did you brush your teeth?’ in an accusatory tone (clearly she didn’t), just say ‘You were in there for such a short time, I don’t think you brushed long enough. Let’s go back and do it more thoroughly.’ The goal at this time is to avoid cavities, not conduct an honesty crusade.” Moreover, “Acting like an interrogator just makes kids more scared and makes it harder for them to tell the truth the next time.”