Three-year-old Sally was playing happily in the art area. Her teacher noticed a puddle on the floor under Sally's feet. "Sally, did you wet your pants?" Sally shook her head no and said, "My shoes did it."

Clearly, Sally has told her teacher a lie, probably to avoid disapproval. But if you can step back and view lying as part of a child's emotional and intellectual development, you will find that telling lies doesn't condemn a child to a life of betrayal or serious behavior problems. In fact, recent research has shown that lying follows a developmental progression, and that essential human skills — independence, taking perspective, and achieving emotional control — are the same skills that enable children to lie.

Learning by Imitation

Like everything else, children learn to lie from the people around them. Parents and educators teach children in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to suppress their honesty. "Look at that funny man," a child will yell. "I don't like this," a child will say of Grandma's gift. "Yuck," says the child about food that doesn't taste good. Adults slowly teach children that this kind of honesty is not always welcome, that there is a fine line between telling the truth and not hurting other people. Children also observe active lying by the adults in their lives. (One research study found that adults admit to lying an average of 13 times a week.)

When Does Lying Start?

Conventional child development wisdom long held that young children were not cognitively capable of lying. More recent research has found, however, that most children learn to lie effectively between the ages of 2 and 4. The first successful lie marks the child's discovery that her mind and thinking are separate from her parents'. This same understanding is marked by her discovery of the word no, which helps young children delineate the boundaries between their own desires, thoughts, and feelings, and those of others.

Reasons for Lying

From about age 4 on, children lie for many of the same reasons adults do. Children lie to avoid punishment, to gain an advantage, to protect against an unwanted consequence, to boost self-esteem. Children, like adults, sometimes lie to demonstrate power, maintain privacy, or protect a friend. When a child lies, she is essentially trying to change a situation, to reconstruct things the way she wants them to be.

Levels of Lying

There is a developmental progression to lying — children become better at lying as they acquire higher-level strategies. At the first level of lying, the child wants to achieve some goal or receive some reward by saying something she knows or believes to be false. Her intention may be to affect the listener's behavior — to avoid punishment or receive a reward.

At this age, wishes and imagination often get in the way of what is real. Sometimes a 3-year-old will start to tell a story, and you'll hear it get out of hand as he adds bits and pieces to fit the ideas in his head. Lies at this age might succeed, but 3-year-olds are generally poor liars, because they fail to lie appropriately. They do not consider that their listeners will think about either the statement or their intention, and, as a result, they tend to lie at the wrong time and place, or they neglect to consider other important facts, such as how they'll conceal the deception and cover their tracks.

By age 4, children know the difference between telling the truth and lying — and they know it's wrong to lie. So, generally, they're truthful, and when they're not, it's obvious: "I can't tell; I don't know." But they also become more proficient at lying because now they're more cognitively capable of taking account of the listener's belief in the statement.

By age 4 or 5, children understand the effects a false message can have on a listener's mind, recognizing that listeners will interpret and evaluate a statement in light of their existing knowledge. A child's emerging ability to understand false beliefs assists him in his lying efforts, and in his understanding the implications of lying. Fours and 5s still have trouble knowing whether a listener believes a statement is true. As one 5-year-old said, "You should never tell a lie, because the brains inside grown-ups' heads are so smart they always find out."

What to Do When Children Lie

When a young child tells a lie, remind yourself that this is not a crisis of morality. It doesn't help to get outraged about less than the truth. Telling a lie is the child's way of getting what he wants, which is normal and healthy at this age. It also doesn't help to investigate his story like a detective. This makes the child feel that he can't be trusted, is devious, and that the act is most serious. Even when a child is 4 or 5 or older and has become more aware of what truth means, you may or may not get the truth if you ask for it directly. If you do get it, however, it is because you made him tell. But after he admits he knocked the blocks off the shelf, what have you gained? You have not encouraged him to take responsibility for his own behavior. Actually, your pressure might cause him to tell less than the truth the next time. Helping a child develop morality and responsibility for his actions over the long haul is the goal. Here are some strategies to use to foster children's understanding of truthfulness:

Model the behavior you expect to see in children. Be trusting, self-regulating, and respectful adults.

Cool down before doing anything. The calmer you are, the better the communication will be. The first order is to convey the message that a behavior — stealing, for example — is wrong and then address why the child lied about it. Remember that some children will lie to avoid anger even more than to avoid punishment.

Consider the goal of the child's lie. There is always a motive and meaning for what children tell us. It won't hurt to ask yourself what your child is gaining by telling a lie.

Point out the logical consequences of lying. Young children are very interested in the story of the boy who cried wolf so often that nobody paid any attention when the wolf really appeared, and the boy needed help. When a child is able to change her story and tell you the truth, it is reinforcing to let her know that you are glad she was able to do so. This will make it easier for her to tell the truth the next time.

Try to discern the probable meaning and message the child is trying to communicate with his lie. Occasionally, lying is a sign that a child needs more attention and perhaps stronger limits on daily activities. Longer term strategies may be needed to create more structured routines for him to increase his sense of security.