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Debra Matell Cohen, Ed.D.

John Winthrop Wright Director of Ethical Education


“No Mommy, I did not poke the baby. She poked herself.”

How many parents have heard their child lie and wondered “Where did I go wrong?” How many teachers wrestle with the challenge of creating “real-life lessons” about cheating on tests and homework assignments? And how do organizations encourage and foster ethical behaviors in the workplace? 

Lying is a pervasive issue in our world and affects all of us. At Character.org, we cannot imagine a world where people don’t care about being honest. No matter how you think about character, it’s hard to imagine any definition that doesn’t include honesty and trustworthiness.

For the next five weeks, I’ll be exploring these topics in our new series about lying.  Following this week’s overview, I’ll explore what parents can do when their children lie. Then I’ll look at what educators can do in their classrooms and schools to reduce lying behaviors, followed by a discussion on what can be done to reduce lying in the workplace. Finally, I’ll end with an interview with an expert in the field.

Researchers tell us that children begin to learn how to lie at around age 3, when they realize others around them cannot read their minds and they can tell untruths without others knowing. Around age 4-6, children learn to match their facial expressions to their words; it’s no longer enough for them to protest that they didn’t commit the negative act; they can also show a face that says “I have no idea how that could have happened.” As they enter the pre-teen and adolescent years, children lie for other reasons, including gaining acceptance from peers, attempting to exercise control over a situation, and wanting attention.

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry indicates lying becomes a serious issue when an otherwise responsible child falls into a pattern of repetitive lying, such as pretending to have completed homework when in fact they are having a learning challenge that prevents them from finishing the work. An even more serious lying behavior occurs when young people lie to cover a more significant problem, including drug or alcohol abuse. While these children or adolescents may feel badly about lying, they are more fearful of the consequences of revealing the truth.

The table below summarizes common lying behaviors and the reasoning behind them.


(adapted from the Child Mind Institute)

Type of Lying BehaviorReasoning
Testing out a new behaviorWondering what will happen if they commit lying behaviors
Enhancing self-esteem and gaining approvalChildren lacking self-confidence may be looking to fit in and gain approval from their peers
Removing the focus from themselvesChildren with anxiety or depression may be prone to this type of lying
Speaking before they thinkThis is particularly an issue for children with ADHD, who may lie out of impulsivity
Attempting to meet the high expectations of parents and other adults (including teachers and coaches), particularly when those expectations may be too highChildren may feel the need to lie to meet the high expectations of their parents or other adults
Trying to get something they wantChildren view telling the lie as a justifiable means to an end
Avoiding getting into trouble or being punishedLying as a form of problem-solving, used by children to protect themselves or others
Establishing their own individuality and identityExploring what they believe are the values they want to live by or what standards they want to uphold
Avoiding doing something they don’t want to doLying may offer “an easy out”
Telling lies as a means of getting attentionChildren believe they will be “rewarded” through their lying behavior, changing the story or situation to their benefit
Lying because “everyone” in their friend group is lyingChildren wanting to feel included and accepted by their peers
White liesThese lies may sometimes be classified as “social skills,” and may even be encouraged by parents to protect others’ feelings.

Kang Lee points out in his TED Talk that the “necessary ingredients” associated with lying – mind-reading and self-control abilities – are also essential skills for a young person to develop for empathy and goal setting. His perspective on lying is that it’s usually a typical part of human development rather than just a black-and-white issue of “bad behavior.” 

Our challenge as parents, teachers and coaches is to teach, reinforce, and model the importance of being honest for its own sake. That’s why we’ve created this series:  To equip adults with the tools and strategies to inspire young people to be honest because this core value has become an integral part of their character.

As I explore this topic about how to empower children to be honest and tell the truth, my goal is to confront this challenge as a champion for honesty. We can do better than to simply tell children they will be punished if they are caught lying. We also can’t accept the argument that “everyone lies, so it’s no big deal.” It is a big deal. What’s more important than raising ethical and honest young people?

Watch for the subsequent parts of this series and sign up to receive the “Ethics in Action” blog and webinar series in your inbox:

Part 2: What Parents Can Do When Their Children Are Lying
Part 3: What Teachers Can Do When Their Students are Lying
Part 4: Why Do People Lie at Work and What Can Leaders Do About It?
Part 5: Webinar: A Conversation with Dr. Kang Lee on Why People Lie

In the months ahead, our series will also explore Why Do Kids Steal? and Why Do Kids Cheat?


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