Ask the Expert: Telling the Truth: a Lesson Kids Learn in Stages

Q. My 5-year-old lies to me about everything — even unimportant things. Is this normal?

A. In the fairy tale “Pinocchio,” the wooden puppet’s nose stretched and grew to match the gravity of the lies he told. For him, there was no denying the consequences of his twisted words. Wouldn’t it be nice for parents if our kids faced a similar consequence for lying — they would certainly learn to tell the truth more quickly! Instead, we teach with patience that lying is unacceptable behavior.

What many parents do not realize is that children progress through three stages of moral development in much the same way their personality develops. Understanding this progression can help parents better deal with a child’s tendency to bend the truth.

The first stage, pre-conventional morality, is the stage very young children go through from toddlers through about age 5 or 6. During this period, children believe something is wrong when they are punished for the behavior; the worse the punishment, the more “bad” their behavior was. Young children are very focused on their own self interests. If some kind of reward is involved, they will do whatever is needed to get the reward, even if that means fibbing a bit.

If you ask, “Who ate the bag of chocolate chips?” after you find the remains on the kitchen counter, your 4-year-old is perfectly content to respond, “Not me,” even though her freckled cheeks have chocolate smudges. At this age, kids simply lack a strong sense of right and wrong.

Beginning around age 6 and through age 12, children enter the conventional morality stage and begin to have a sense of how they are viewed in society. At this point, kids want to be seen as good and might lie to make themselves look like the good boy or girl.

A couple told me about their 7-year-old son who came home from school with a one-sentence homework assignment. “I only have to write one sentence,” he explained. In reality, the assignment was to write a full-page story.
Although writing down a one-sentence assignment was a kind of lie, he was making himself the good boy by writing something instead of just fidgeting or daydreaming in class. And he looked good for his parents, if only temporarily, by completing his homework. Of course, he failed to think about the consequences: His parents got a very informative letter from his teacher two weeks later!

The final stage in moral development is post-conventional morality. Beginning in the teen years and on into adulthood, we develop a sense of individual rights, law, social order and social conscience. When children reach adolescent years they start thinking about morality in relative terms. In normal, healthy development, kids begin to better understand the consequences of their actions and exhibit a more fully developed sense of right and wrong.

As parents, we must explain to our children that lying is wrong. Our role is to set boundaries and establish appropriate punishments for lying. We can help children understand that if they want to be seen as a good boy or girl, they need to do the assignment, do the work and not make up lies to cover their failings.

We can help children move to the next level of morality by teaching them the consequences of lying. Help them understand that when they lie they are the ones responsible for the undesirable consequence and that lying will not change reality.

Children also learn appropriate behavior through parents’ examples. Sometimes we tell kids we will do something that, for whatever reason, we are unable to fulfill — we change our minds, our plans or the way we feel. Good parenting means explaining the situation to a child. “I told you we were going to the zoo, but it turns out I don’t have the money” or “my work changed,” is a more honest explanation than “Because I said so,” or “Don’t ask questions.”

You should be concerned with a child’s lying if you notice that your child lies more and more frequently even though you’ve explained — and they understand — the consequences. If lying is accompanied by the destruction of property, or verbal or physical aggression, you should seek the support of a therapist.

For most kids, learning to tell the truth is a normal part of their moral development. As we patiently help children through these stages, we will see the foundations of moral conscience — instead of lies — begin to grow stronger.

Nicolle Napier-Ionascu, Psy.D., is a clinical neuropsychologist at Presbyterian Hospital Rehabilitation Center and part of the adjunct faculty at Queens University of Charlotte. If your child needs behavioral health services, contact Presbyterian Beh