Dear Susan,

I am very concerned about my 6-year-old daughter who seems to lie about everything and is very sneaky. Yesterday I caught her with lollipops she had taken from my purse. She knows my purse is out of bounds, but when I confronted her she still denied that she had even touched my purse! She also made up a story about one of her friend’s having a new baby brother. When I ran into the other mother, I congratulated her, but she never had a new baby! We have tried to be consistent about punishing her when she lies, but it does not seem to be helping.

Patty, in London


Dear Patty,

Chronic lying can be a real problem and parents are usually very dismayed when their child continues to lie even after they have tried to teach them the value of honesty.

However, it is important to distinguish the difference between actual deceit and bragging, or telling stories.

Preschool children often brag, or exaggerate the truth (i.e. “My Dad is the fastest runner in the whole world.”) But telling stories is different from actual lying. Stories are not intended to deceive you, but are rather a means of displaying imagination, experimenting with roles and language, and sharing fantasy.

By the age of 5, children typically begin to distinguish reality from fantasy, so your daughter may be lying to test the limits or to see if she can trick you. Children experiment with power and language as they learn the ways of the world.

That said, sometimes children lie because they don’t feel safe telling the truth and fear harsh punishments or criticism.

If a child is punished for errors or honest mistakes, they may feel the need to lie or be ‘sneaky’ to avoid punishment. Children need reassurance that everyone make mistakes, like spilling or losing things, and that mistakes are part of growing up and learning to be an adult.

Perhaps you could sit down with your daughter and reassure her that you will not punish her for an honest error, but it is important that she tell the truth. For example, if she accidentally breaks a vase, you will not punish her as long as she tells you about it, but if she tries to be sneaky and hide it, she will lose a privilege. You might also consider a reward system for truth telling. In this way, you are not actually reinforcing the ‘mistake’, but focusing on and rewarding her courage to tell you the truth.

Your daughter should soon see that she can earn more lollipops through truth telling than she can by being sneaky.