Why Toddlers Lie: Turning Deception into a Teaching Opportunity

By Greg Baer M.D.

June 27, 2023

Why Toddlers Lie

Parenting is a journey teeming with joys and challenges. One hurdle often encountered in a child's early years is their inclination towards telling lies. While some may perceive this behavior as disconcerting, it's crucial to recognize that young children typically don't lie out of malicious intent—they're predominantly trying to evade disapproval.

Here's an insightful conversation I had with a mother regarding her 27-month-old daughter, Sola, offering valuable guidance on navigating these tricky waters.

A concerned mother reached out to me, sharing her revelation, “My daughter, Sola, is 27 months old. She told me her first lie this morning.” With a chuckle, I responded, “You mean the first lie you noticed?!”

It's key to remember that children don’t lie because they’re innately deceptive. They lie because they have astutely observed that when they do something wrong and are caught, the resulting disapproval (withdrawal of love) is overwhelming.

This dislike for disapproval leads them to deny any wrongdoing, even when the evidence is clearly against them. They are merely employing a strategy that works for them.

The mother continues, “I needed to do some paperwork, so I handed my phone to Sola, loaded with an educational app. On my return from a quick bathroom break, she kept insisting, ’I didn’t watch YouTube.’ Having previously explained to her that only I can switch to YouTube, I was puzzled. Upon further investigation, I discovered a YouTube channel playing on my phone.”

It was clear evidence that Sola, despite her tender age, had managed to switch apps—a feat even I find challenging at times. However, the mother confessed, “I didn’t say anything about it. I gave the phone back to her.”

This was a missed opportunity to LoveandTeach Sola about honesty and about following rules. Contrary to popular belief, 27 months is not too young to start teaching these lessons.

What To Do When a Toddler Lies

What followed is an example of how this situation could be utilized for teaching honesty. Addressing a toddler requires simplicity, but rest assured, a child of Sola's age will grasp the concept.

Mom continued, “I turned on Kids Learn" (point to it), then "You switched it to YouTube without asking” (show her the buttons using her finger). Next, make it clear who is allowed to switch to YouTube – “Only Mommy goes to YouTube. You don’t." And finally, explain the consequence – “If you go to YouTube when I’m not here, I will take the phone away for a long time.”

The Consequence: A Lesson in Patience and Honesty

What constitutes a "long time" for a two-year-old? It's hard to quantify, but it should be long enough that the child asks for the phone a couple of times, each instance serving as a reminder of why the privilege was lost. This scenario, when consistently applied, teaches patience and the importance of following the rules.

Use Their Lying as a Teaching Opportunity

In essence, LovingandTeaching a child isn't solely about laying out directives but also explaining the consequences (both good and bad) of their actions in a manner they understand. The story of Sola and her mother serves as an example of the potential teaching moments nestled in everyday interactions between parents and children.

Rather than viewing a child's lie as a cause for concern, it can be used as an opportunity to instill honesty, respect, and understanding—traits that will help them as they grow up.

As we navigate the roller coaster ride of parenthood, let's remember our little ones are constantly learning from our actions. Their innocence and endless curiosity make this challenging journey worth every second.

So here's to raising kids who feel loved, loving, and responsible, naturally—because that's who they really are.

Learn more toddler tips!

Eliminate confusion and conflict with your children.

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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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