Lying and Stealing

Lying and stealing are common, but inappropriate, behaviors in school-aged children. Some severe forms of these behaviors can be a sign of a more serious psychological problem. But most of the time it is simply a common behavior that will be outgrown. Lying and stealing are more common in boys than girls. Both happen most often in children ages 5 to 8 years.

When your child is lying

When you have a child who is lying, it is important to first remember the child's age and developmental stage.

  • Under age 3. Children this age don't lie on purpose. They do not understand what they are saying. Instead, they are just experimenting with language and newfound facts about the world. They might also lie to prevent punishment. That is because they understand the consequences but have an undeveloped moral code.

  • Ages 3 to 7. Children this age often have problems separating the real world from fantasy. They might have imaginary playmates at this age and enjoy fairy tales and make-believe play. The lies told by this age group are mostly tales that they have made up, not intentional lies. By age 6 or 7, children understand what lying is. But they will continue to cheat if able.

  • Ages 6 to 12. Children now understand what lying is and the moral wrongness of this behavior. But they may continue to lie to test adult rules and limits. The child may admit to telling a lie, but often they have many reasons for having done so. Rules are very important at this age, so cheating becomes less important.

Other factors that may cause a child to lie

These factors include:

  • Children may lie if their parents' expectations of them are too high.

  • Children may lie about their grades if parents assume that they are doing better in school than they really are.

  • If a child is asked why they did some bad behavior, the child may lie because they are unable to explain the actions.

  • Children who are not disciplined on a consistent basis may lie.

  • Children who don't receive praise and rewards may lie to get this attention.

  • Children facing disturbances at home or elsewhere may lie as a way to get help.

When does lying become a concern?

Many situations may cause concern. If any of these apply to your child, talk with their healthcare provider:

  • A child who is lying and also has other behavioral problems may have more psychological problems. Examples of behavioral problems include:

    • Setting things of fire

    • Being mean to people or animals

    • Having sleep problems

    • Being very hyperactive

  • A child who lies and does not have many friends or does not want to play in groups may have poor self-esteem and be depressed.

  • A child who lies to get something from someone else and does not show any signs of regret.

When your child is stealing

Stealing often causes more concern to parents because it may happen outside the home and may affect other people. During the school years, stealing may be a sign of a problem. But it may happen due to peer pressure and the child's need to fit in. It is important to look at the whole situation.

  • Under age 3. Children this age take things because they don't understand fully the difference between what is mine and what is not. They then may become possessive of their things and protect them. They don't steal with bad intentions.

  • Ages 3 to 7. Children now start to respect things that belong to others. But this age group will trade things without regard to value if something else is wanted. The respect for property continues in the school-aged child.

  • By age 9. Children this age should respect others' things. They should understand that stealing is wrong. But children in this age group may continue to steal because of several factors, including:

    • They may feel peer pressure and the need to fit in.

    • They may have low self-esteem.

    • They may not have any friends and may be trying to buy their friends.

    • They may try to become good at stealing to feel proud of something they have done if they don't get positive feedback from their parents.

When does stealing become a concern?

Many situations may cause concern. If any of these apply to your child, it is important to talk with your child's healthcare provider:

  • An older child who steals and does not feel bad about it

  • A child who constantly steals

  • A child who also has other behavioral problems

Children older than age 3 should be confronted with any lying or stealing. But it is important to remember that most of these behaviors are part of growing up. They do not represent severe problems. Each child is unique. Talk with your child's healthcare provider about any concerns you have.

Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Paul Ballas MD
Date Last Reviewed: 2/1/2023
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