Cross boy toddler wearing striped shirt: why children lie steal and cheat

We’re always warned of toddler tantrums, but hardly anyone ever mentions that todders also lie, cheat and steal. But, before you worry that your little one is dishonest, you can relax in knowing that lying, stealing and cheating are entirely normal, and area a part of toddler development.

At this stage, toddlers want instant gratification, are trying to figure out their boundaries, right from wrong, reality from imagination, and little from a lot, which is why they tend to lie, steal and cheat.

Lying 

Toddlers don’t lie out of malice and there is no premeditation to their lies. A big reason why toddlers lie is their imaginations are very active and they might embellish things. Or they don’t remember how things happened – was it him or his friend who broke the truck, or was it a party at school today, or just a regular day?

“Once your child realises that people can have independent thoughts and parents can’t tell what everybody is thinking, children may start to lie,” says educational psychologist Claire Maher. “This is likely to be around the time they start to converse, around three years old. The propensity for lying may increase as they age too. Lying at this age may be to get out of trouble, or perceived trouble, or because it’s something they wish were true. For example, a four-year-old might say they don’t know who left muddy footprints on the floor because they’re worried about being in trouble.”

Experts believe that “magical thinking” also causes toddlers to lie. For example, they might tell you that mommy is pregnant with a little brother because that’s what they wish were true.

How to manage it 

It all depends on the severity and the consequences of the lying, says Claire. “Encouraging your child to be honest, and to know that they won’t be in trouble if they tell the truth (this has to be true though – don’t trick them!).

Model honesty too – your child will see through your lies, even if they are lies to protect your child. If you suspect a child is lying about something they might wish to be true, tell them this. Mention that it seems as if they really wish that mommy was having a little brother for them so they’re making up a story like they might read in a book. This puts into words what the feeling behind the lie might be.”

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Cheating 

Children tend to cheat at play, as well as at school, to be seen as achievers and to get the approval and attention of others. They already have an idea of how competitive the world around them is – people who win are “winners” and people who lose are, well, “losers”. Kids might bend the rules at games, saying they didn’t understand the rules properly, or deny that they broke the rules.

“Toddlers don’t hold a moral value to cheating and don’t see it as wrong,” says Claire. “Cheating is quite a normal behaviour but should be monitored as your child gets older.”

How to manage it 

“We should let young children cheat to win when they have no understanding of what they’re doing or that it might be wrong,” advises Claire.

“Where it should be managed is when children cheat in games with their peers who are less understanding, or when the cheating is harmful to others. It can be useful to mention to your child that you can see how much they want to win – so much so that they’re not even following the rules. Steer away from using the word ‘cheat’ with younger children as it has negative connotations and can be difficult to manage when a child is not doing it intentionally. Cheating as children get older, in tests or games at school, needs to be addressed as it could indicate underlying anxiety or pressure to perform.”

Also, try to focus on the “process” of doing things, rather than the result. For example: “Well done on playing so well” rather than: “Well done for winning”. Parents also need to lead by example – check yourself and your behaviour before insisting on it from your kids.

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Stealing 

One of the most common reasons toddlers steal is because they want what everyone else has or because they want it, but can’t have it. Toddlers generally don’t understand the idea of personal possessions and if they want something, they’ll simply take it. Taking something without asking or without permission might give them a feeling of freedom too.

Cross preschooler girl with her arms folded

“According to Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, children younger than nine years have not yet developed a personal moral compass,” says Claire. “They are bound by what they are told is right, and the consequences of breaking rules. Children are also driven by instinct or instant gratification. If a child is not taught about stealing and taking what doesn’t belong to you, they will not see it as problematic. A child may also steal because they feel deprived – sometimes this deprivation is emotional but because love and affection cannot be stolen, they steal physical items instead.”

How to manage it

Claire advises that this should be seen as a teaching and learning opportunity, with a consequence for the action too – a firm, but non-punitive response explaining to your child that what they did was wrong (they’re not bad but their behaviour is undesirable) and an explanation of why they’re receiving a particular consequence. This could be in the form of an apology to the person from whom the item was stolen, replacing the stolen item or working back the value of what was taken.”

When to worry and when to get help

“With all of the above behaviours, there is a sense of normalcy for them to take place with toddlers and young children,” says Claire. “Where moral development is not yet expected and children are testing the limits and navigating social interactions. The concern comes in when behaviours become repetitive, malicious in nature, or when the child cannot recognise that their behaviour is not okay, despite being taught and guided.”

Persistent behaviours that continue when they get older can suggest more serious difficulties or disorders that may require intervention. Children with ADHD, for example, may cheat, lie or steal due to impulsivity, or anxious children may lie to get out of trouble. In some instances, these behaviours in later years may be symptomatic of oppositional defiance or conduct disorders. Interventions may take the form of psychotherapy, psychiatry or other therapies.”