Why Children Lie

Posted on February 9, 2011 · Posted in Lying

When children lie it is often tempting to see the reason for the lie as a mystery. For example; “Why would my child lie about taking that toy from his brother, when it is so obvious that he did do just that?” Then, deepening the mystery, parents often ask, “Why would he make up such a far-fetched story to cover up his actions? The lie and cover up seem so illogical and unnecessary.” Thus, parents sometimes tend to treat the problem as one of logic and intelligence; they puzzle over why their children would lie. Scripture solves the mystery. Children are born liars. When we sin, we lose the ability to be logical. We are blinded by self-interest (Proverbs 4:19).

Lying is the extension of a self-centered nature. Children tend to lie in two types of circumstances. First, they lie when they fear a consequence so much they will do anything to avoid it, e.g., punishment for hitting. Second, children tend to lie when there is something they desire, and they see lying as the best way to get it; e.g., I am angry with my brother, so I will make up something to make him look bad. In both situations the reason for the lie is the same—a self-centered viewpoint.  Note Sarah’s lie in Genesis 18:

Then the LORD said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”

Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?”

Then the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.”

Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”

But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.” Genesis 18:10-15

Scripture provides insight into the human heart and motives. Sarah’s lie in Genesis 18 provides a clear view of the deceit of the human heart. Upon hearing that she would have a child in her old age, Sarah laughs. There is more behind this laugh than biological issues. Remember that for almost 24 years God had been promising Abraham a son. Her laugh demonstrates her long-term disbelief in God’s promise. Years earlier she had become tired of waiting for God to bless her with the child he promised Abraham, so she schemed to have a child by her servant Hagar. But as you know, this birth had not made her happy. Now, after her childbearing years are past, God comes and tells Abraham that in the coming year he will fulfill the longstanding promise of a child to him and to Sarah. Sarah’s laugh is one of doubt and disillusionment toward God. God would not provide a child when her body was able to become pregnant, but now she is to believe she will become pregnant after menopause??? It is this doubt that God addresses when he says, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”

Sarah is afraid. The passage indicates that she laughed to herself. She thought she was safe, that no one could know her secret thoughts. Then, in a stunning instant, she hears her own thoughts repeated by this Stranger, the Lord. Rather than admit her doubt, Sarah blurts out that she did not laugh. But the Lord forcefully corrects her – you did laugh.

Sarah lies because she fears exposure. She thinks her thoughts and doubts are hidden, and a lie is the best way to solve her problem. She does not want to be exposed as a mocker and doubter to her husband and to God. She is afraid—she lies. However, nothing is hidden from God.

Your children will lie for this same reason. Lying is an indication that children are much more self-aware than they are often given credit for. It is compelling evidence of their true heritage: original sin. Children don’t have to be taught to lie, it comes naturally.

So when you hear your children lie, remember that one of the elements behind the lie is fear—fear of being exposed for who they really are. The answer, of course, is Christ. Even in the midst of hearing their lies, you can have compassion for your children. Yes, they are sinful, unkind, and even cruel with their lies. But at the root is a heart in need of Christ. Without Christ, fear dominates. Fear can make one stupidly deny the truth, just as Sarah did.

When your children lie, or even when you think they may have lied, you always want to remind them that God knows their hearts and thoughts even better than they do themselves. You want to call them to repent and trust in Christ, for he alone can help them overcome the fear of self-exposure. Only the power of the Gospel can free them from the tyranny of lying. You can and should confidently tell them that God knows whether they have been truthful or not. Discipline for lying must come from compassion for a lost heart. Yes, your children have offended you with their lies, but more importantly, they have offended and mocked God. Help them to see this reality. It is sometimes difficult to realize that a child who is defiant and seemingly unfazed by lying may actually be dominated by fear. Yet this is often the case.

Ephesians 4 says that the opposite of lying is truth-telling. The way to expose lying for what it is, is to tell the truth yourself. If you make your children’s lies primarily an issue between them and you, you are actually distorting the truth. A child must be right with God before he can be really right with parents. Lying is a deeply personal sin of the heart. Only Christ can address this issue. You want to point your children to Christ to address this sin. More on this in the next few posts.

As always, let me know your thoughts.

Jay Younts
John A. (Jay) Younts is the Shepherd Press blogger, and is a ruling elder serving at Redeemer Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Moore, South Carolina. He has written Everyday Talk, Everyday Talk About Sex & Marriage, Finding the Right Track, the In Touch With Paul stewardship series, and What About War. He has studied and taught about biblical childrearing for 30 years. He and his late wife Ruth have five adult children.