Lies might seem pretty clear cut—either your child is telling the truth, or they aren’t. But it can actually be a lot more complex than that.
Psychology professors Katherine Warnell and Jennifer Clegg at Texas State University recently published research underscoring exactly that point. Not only do young kids tell different kinds of lies—such as “anti-social” lies designed to keep themselves out of trouble, or prosocial lies that are meant to avoid hurting someone’s feelings—but the concept of lying itself varies across cultures. What’s considered an acceptable or even expected “good lie” in some families, like telling Grandma you really love the scratchy sweater she gave you, might be considered rude in others.
You can get into even more gray area when kids start to learn about joking. Sometimes kids will say untrue or hurtful things and then say they were “just kidding” or “just being silly.” Maybe they suddenly realized they might get in trouble for what they said and they’re looking for a way to backpedal out of it, or maybe they don’t really understand the difference between lying, kidding, and using their imaginations. Kids also sometimes experiment with humor—like insisting that their sibling got hurt, and only revealing the “joke” after you’ve leapt sopping wet out of the shower to run to their aid—that went so far it feels a bit like a lie.
In any case, it’s important to teach kids the difference so they learn to socialize with kindness, confidence, and appropriate humor, and avoid hurting and confusing others unnecessarily. The distinction between lying and kidding can be hard to explain, especially to young kids, but by using lots of examples and questions you can start to point your kiddo in the right direction. Here’s a script for what that conversation might look like.
Explain why the distinction matters
“Can we talk about what ‘just kidding’ or ‘just being silly’ means? Because sometimes when someone doesn’t tell the truth it’s a joke, and sometimes it’s a lie, and sometimes it’s just a mistake. It can be hard to know the difference, but it’s an important difference.”
“I love when you make me laugh and I love when you use your imagination to say something surprising, but I want to make sure you’re not accidentally hurting or scaring anyone when you say you’re ‘just kidding.’”
Define an appropriate joke with examples
“If you say something that isn’t true to make a joke and you’re just kidding around, that means you’re trying to make people laugh. A joke should also be something that is not very serious, and that doesn’t hurt or scare anyone.”
“Here’s an example: If you told me you ate 35 gold-plated chocolate bars for lunch, and then said ‘just kidding,’ I would probably laugh, right? Because that’s you being silly and using your imagination, and it’s not anything scary or hurtful.”
“What’s another thing you could say ‘just kidding’ after that would actually make people laugh?”
Define an inappropriate joke with examples
“But what if you said, ‘My teacher punched me today,’ and then said ‘just kidding’? Do you think I would laugh? No, I would be worried and would want to figure out if you were actually safe at school.”
“If you wanted to tell me something that really happened to you at school, you would have to tell me in a serious way so I knew it was true and I could help you. But if you were imagining something scary or strange that COULD happen but DIDN’T happen, then don’t try to tell it as a joke. Instead you could say, ‘What would happen if a teacher punched a student?’”
“What’s another example of something that might make people hurt or scared instead of make them laugh? … So what’s a better way to talk about that instead of ‘just kidding’?”
Define a lie with examples
“If something is a lie, that means you’re not joking and you don’t want anyone to find out the truth. A lie usually means something more serious. But we try really hard not to tell lies, right? Because that can hurt people, or make it harder for your grownups to help you.”
“You know you can always tell me something important, and I’ll listen and do my very very best not to get mad because you’re being honest. Even if you did something you weren’t supposed to do, like take something that belongs to someone else, it’s best to tell me the truth right away so we can figure out how to fix the situation together.”
“What else do you think would be a serious lie?”
Reinforce that mistakes are okay
“If something that you said was a mistake or was hurtful, do you think you should say ‘just kidding’ after you realize it was wrong? No, it makes more sense to say, ‘Oops, I made a mistake’ and then say the correct thing if you know what it is. And if you hurt anyone, you should also apologize and see what you can do to make them feel better.”
“Here’s an example: If you were playing a game with a friend and you lost and got upset, you might say something not so kind like ‘I hate playing with you, you’re a cheater.’ If your friend felt hurt by that, and then you said ‘oh, just kidding,’ do you think that would help them feel better? … What could you say instead?”
“Everyone makes mistakes or says things they regret sometimes, so you don’t have to pretend it was a joke. That just confuses people and makes it harder to fix the situation. People will respect you when you’re honest.”
Provide a way to get straight to the truth
“Sometimes you’re not sure if someone is kidding or not, right? I can’t tell either, sometimes. So why don’t we come up with magic words to say that makes the other person have to tell the truth?”
“How about every time one of us says ‘Kidding or for real?’ the other person has to tell the truth, and stop joking if they were joking. That way we won’t scare or hurt each other. We can teach this rule to the whole family, if you want.”
“Because sometimes it’s fun to confuse people just for a little bit with a joke. But we have to know when to stop kidding so that it ends up being fun for everyone!”