Why I Don’t Punish My Children for Lying


One of our daughters has driven us nuts the last couple of weeks. We’ve been through a sneaking/lying phase before, and it looks like we’re in for a second round.

Though traditional wisdom dictates that children should be punished for lying, research shows it not only doesn’t help, but makes the behavior worse.

Here is a snapshot of the behavior we’ve been dealing with:

  • “Yes, you can watch tv if you first put away all your clean clothes.” Fewer than five minutes later, I’m told that the task has been done. “Done the right way?” I ask, and she confirms. Three days later, I happen to find all the clean clothes piled under her bed.
  • Screen time was done for the weekend, so I put the kids’ iPad on top of some high bookshelves. A couple of days later, I notice it in my car as I leave for work and make sure to lock the door during the day. When I find her playing on it after picking her up from school, I suddenly remember the last place I put it – on top of the bookshelf – and realize that she climbed up to get it and has been hiding it in the car. No wonder she’s been going to get in the car early every morning…
  • I bought a $21 bottle of probiotic gummy bears because three people in the house are on antibiotics right now. I believe a total of eight had been given out, after buying them two days ago, when my husband remarked on how quickly they disappear. I looked at the bottle and more than half the bottle was gone. While everyone else was outside building a treehouse, she had climbed up to the medicine cabinet and was eating them like candy.
  • Every morning we ask if she brushed her teeth. Every morning she says, “yes.” The only problem is that her breath still stinks and her toothbrush is dry.

Now, I understand that these aren’t major infractions, but they sure are frustrating. It’s easy to let my mind get carried away with worries that she’ll become a pathological liar, or that I’ll never be able to trust her. And those types of worries only fuel the impulse to do something about it. But what is there for parents to do? And what will actually decrease the behavior? The answer will probably surprise you.

Punishment, it turns out, will make things worse.  

The quickest way to ensure more lying is to punish your children when you catch them doing it, and research now supports this idea. A study from McGill University in Montreal, published in the Journal for Experimental Child Psychology, found that children are, in fact, NOT more likely to tell the truth when they are disciplined for lying.

Specifically, researchers found that:

  1. Children were less likely to tell the truth if they were afraid of being punished than if they were asked to tell the truth either because it would please the adult, or because it was the right thing to do and would make the child feel good.
  2. The researchers expected, and found, that while younger children were more focused on telling the truth to please the adults, the older children had better internalized standards of behavior which made them tell the truth because it was the right thing to do.

“The bottom line is that punishment does not promote truth-telling,” says lead researcher, Victoria Talwar. “In fact, the threat of punishment can have the reverse effect by reducing the likelihood that children will tell the truth when encouraged to do so. This is useful information for all parents of young children and for professionals like teachers who work with them and want to encourage young children to be honest.” – Today’s Parent

Punishment takes away your ability to help your child.

If your child messes up, you probably want them to come to you and let you know. You want to help. But what child is going to feel encouraged to be honest about a mistake when they know that their parent is going to punish them once the truth is out?

Let’s be clear: Choosing not to punish does not mean you are your child’s friend. You are your child’s mentor. If my daughter forgets to do her homework, I don’t want her to lie to me about it in order to avoid getting in trouble. In fact, I’m not the one she should be in trouble with – completed homework was the expectation of her teacher. I want her to be able to come to me – upset, scared, panicked – so that I can assure her things will be okay, and give her some ideas of how to handle the situation. When she learns at age 8 that she can’t tell her parents about a mistake because she’ll just get in more trouble, I doubt she’ll come to me if she faces a scarier situation when she’s 16, 17, or 18 years old.

Natural consequences are the ultimate teacher. 

If your child lies to a friend, that friend might begin to question what your child says. When my daughter gets frustrated because we ask 75 times if she’s brushed her teeth, and don’t believe her when she has, she’s beginning to learn that dishonesty has a downside.

Natural consequences can be difficult to see, but they’re always readily available. When I found her in the car with the iPad, I didn’t take the iPad away for a week, but I did point out that she had already used up some of her screen time when she wanted the iPad on the weekend. When she ate too many probiotics and had an upset stomach the next day, she learned why the bottle says “2 per day.” When she started sneaking pop-tarts into her room to eat throughout the day, we stopped buying pop-tarts. She didn’t “get away” with the things she was hoping for – there were consequences for all of them. And best of all, they were natural consequences instead of an unrelated punishment superimposed from mom or dad.

Help your children learn the value of honesty. 

More than likely, we will not be able to punish our adult children when they get caught in a lie at 30 years old. Our job is not to force our children to be responsible, but to help them become responsible for themselves. 

When my youngest told her father that her step-father had spanked her, it caused some tempers to flare. It had never actually happened (we are a non-spanking household), and I couldn’t figure out why she was lying about it. I questioned her for a while and she stuck right to her story. But when I told her that because she said it was true, I’d need to talk to her step-dad and make sure he never did it again, she became tearful. “Oops!” she yelled behind me as I walked out of the room to find him. That “oops” was her admission that she had lied. Through her sobs, she managed some explanation about how she didn’t want her dad to spank her and thought if she told him that her step-dad had done it, she could, in a round-about way, express her dislike of spankings. She then said, “When you left to talk to Chris, my heart said, ‘Tell the truth! Tell the truth!’ so I said, ‘oops.'”

THAT is what I want: to cultivate a child’s heart that says “tell the truth.” Lying simply doesn’t feel good. I don’t want to become my child’s moral compass. I want them to develop their own. I want them to know what a relief it can be to tell the truth, how trustworthy they become when they practice honesty, and that they are ultimately responsible for their behavior.

So, what do you think? Were you punished for lying?

How do you deal with a child’s dishonesty?

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7 Responses to Why I Don’t Punish My Children for Lying

  1. Moriah April 7, 2016 at 7:07 am #

    I agree with a lot of this. When I catch my son telling me a lie I often tell him that I would prefer he told me the truth instead of lie to me. I don’t punish but I do let natural consequences take their course. If he forgets to do his homework I allow him time to get it done in the morning if he remembers or suggest he tries to get it done on the bus before he gets there. If he doesn’t, then he knows it was his choice and whatever the teacher decides is what he will have to accept. Often it only takes me asking him to tell me the truth when I know he has been caught in a lie and he will apologize and set things right on his own. I too think it’s important for our children to be able to come to us no matter what. I appreciate your examples they were really helpful!

    • Kimberly Mathis
      Kimberly Mathis April 7, 2016 at 9:36 am #

      Moriah, thanks for your comment. I think the way you are handling homework is the way we handle it as well. For example, my daughter has a big project due at the end of the month and while she doesn’t seem nervous about it, I notice that I am. I don’t want her to wait until the last minute and risk a bad grade, or embarrassment, but I also know that if I step in too much, she won’t learn anything about personal responsibility. So I’m gently reminding her that it’s coming up, but I’m not making her do it. She’ll figure it out, AND, it’s 2nd grade. It won’t be the end of the world.

  2. Brynn Greene
    Brynn Greene April 7, 2016 at 9:09 am #

    This was a great read! I have been disciplining my three year old for lying, but I think I may try a different approach. I think sometimes she does lie if she thinks she is going to get in trouble. I notice that when I tell her she is not in trouble, I just want her to tell me the truth, she usually will tell me the truth.

    • Kimberly Mathis
      Kimberly Mathis April 7, 2016 at 9:38 am #

      Brynn, thanks for your comment! All I know is, if I was a child and knew that if I told the truth, I’d still get in trouble, then I’d work really hard at avoiding any punishment! 🙂 I hope any changes you make are helpful to you and your daughter.

  3. Allison Evans April 7, 2016 at 11:36 am #

    I love your posts, Kimberly. Thanks for the research to support your position. Your own experience validates that, obviously: she told you the truth because her heart told her to! I have not read Conscious Parenting, so I am grateful to learn about it through you. (It also is in alignment with my favorite parenting book, “Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids,” by Bonnie Harris).

    • Kimberly Mathis
      Kimberly Mathis April 7, 2016 at 11:45 am #

      Allison, thanks for commenting. I love research! 😉 I have not read the Bonnie Harris book, but follow her on FB and appreciate her insight and guidance. I’ll have to add her book to my “To Read” list.

  4. Katie June 8, 2016 at 5:52 pm #

    Lying certainly didn’t feel good. I think when a child knows you value truth over their mistakes, that you are compassionate and forgiving, they will learn to tell the truth. But until they do learn this, I do focus more on the fact they lied as the unfavorable behavior more than what they lied about. Watching more T.V. or eating a treat they weren’t supposed to…don’t freak out!! Let them tell you, and then calmly let natural consequences take place. So they will know they can tell you the truth!