In Parenting

Unethical Behavior in Children: Lying, Stealing and Cheating

Children want to be honest, but when they experience the fear of being punished for something, they may resort to telling a lie. When other children see their friends have nicer possessions than they do, they may steal, believing that when they have the same things their friends have, they’ll be happier. Others believe they have to cheat for higher grades to make their parents happy. All of these are unethical behaviors – and they are all wrong. Where do children learn these actions? By cheating, lying and stealing, children are denying themselves and others the satisfaction of an achievement (or possession) honestly earned.

What Does “Unethical” Mean?

Unethical behavior means actions that don’t conform to a high standard of morals. These actions may be morally unacceptable, such as cheating on a test. A few synonyms include immoral, unsavory, wrong, nefarious and iniquitous.

Unethical behavior is “not guided by a concern for what is right.” Other words that refer to being unethical include dishonest, remorseless, deceitful, corrupt , calculating, opportunistic and scheming. Few children deliberately act in dishonest ways, but these children need more help than a concerned parent trying to correct them can offer.

Children’s Ethical Issues 

Charlie may resort to a lie when he says he did his homework when he didn’t. Misty may swipe her friend’s favorite scarf, wanting it for herself. Trevor may bring test answers into the classroom so he can pass a difficult subject. All of these children want to gain something or avoid a consequence, so they decide to do something dishonest. Some children lie so they can keep an adult from learning they have done something wrong, according to Super Nanny. Some children may suffer from low self esteem, so they tell a big lie about saving a friend so they can impress classmates, their parents or teachers.

Some children see their parents engaging in the same behaviors, so they believe they can do the same thing. Their beliefs are reinforced when their parents see nothing wrong with “using imagination” to complete a long or tough assignment, according to Today Family Time.

When do children begin lying? This behavior can begin as early as three years of age. They may be relating a fantasy, which means they aren’t “lying,” per say. Instead, they are telling a story that came from their imagination. As parents struggle to understand their child’s unethical actions, they are stumped. Are they lying or just telling a big story?

What is Unethical Behavior? 

Children of all ages take part in unethical actions. These can include:

  • Lying to parents and teachers.
  • Cheating on a big test.
  • Stealing something that belongs to someone else.
  • Swiping a paper from the Internet and passing it off as their own (plagiarism).
  • Gossiping about a classmate.
  • Swiping money from a parent’s wallet or friend’s purse.

When parents learn about their children’s actions, they may be shocked that their children are capable of taking these actions. However, isn’t made any easier for children when they see their classmates and teachers doing the same thing.

Why Children Behave Unethically 

“Ahhh, that’s nothing. He only told a little white lie.” A child’s parent may use this as a defense when someone points out that the child lied. When is lying truly lying? Preschoolers don’t understand the difference between their fantasy stories and a lie of omission, according to Super Nanny. Nor can they distinguish between a wish and a lie.

As children get older, they begin to understand what a lie is, but they resort to lying when they want to avoid the consequence of a negative action.

In a study conducted by the University of California-San Diego, researchers wanted to test how and when children lie. One group of children was lied to about a treat being available in another room. When the child got into that room, the researcher admitted to lying, saying they wanted the child to take part in a game. Another group was the “no-lie” group. They were told there was a game in the next room – which was the truth. The children in both groups were told not to look at a toy in the room. The researcher left the room – nearly all the children looked at the toy.

When the researcher came back, she asked the children if they had peeked:

  • 88 percent of the older children who had been lied to about candy lied about peeking at the toy.
  • 65 percent of the children who had not been lied to lied about peeking at the toy.
  • The preschool children felt the effects of being lied to the least. Half of the children in each group lied about having peeked at the toy, according to the Huffington Post.

Some children lie to get the attention of their parents – these children lie often, according to the University of California-Santa Barbara’s Children’s Center.

Other children lie even though they understand what a lie is and despite the fact that they have begun to develop a conscience. They want to avoid the disapproval of their parents, so they lie about something they did.

Children who are 7 and 8 years old have begun to understand protecting the feelings of others. They tell a white lie or engage in a “social lie,” saying that a friend’s outfit or shoes are cool, even though they may believe the new items are actually not very attractive.

Children in their teens want to protect their privacy and to declare their independence from their parents. That doesn’t mean the lie is correct – lying is lying.

How Parents Contribute to their Child’s Unethical Behavior 

Even though they want their children to grow up to be honest individuals, parents can unknowingly contribute to their children lying. In the UCSB study, researchers deduced that in the case of the older children, the children lied because they were actually imitating the dishonesty of the adults. In addition, the older children didn’t feel as though they should pay these adults the courtesy of an honest answer after they learned they had been lied to.

As a child approaches their teens, they may take on a black-and-white view of the world and lying. Thus, if their parents lie to them, they feel no guilt at lying to their parents.

How You Can Encourage Your Children to Act Honestly

Parents can help their children grow up to be honest teens and adults by being honest to their children. They can also do the following:

  • Encourage honesty by naming an issue when they know their children have lied.
  • Trying to understand why their child is lying.
  • Establishing understandable consequences and following through every time.
  • Setting a good example by telling the truth.
  • Praising their child for being honest.
  • Keep their word when they can.
  • Avoiding lying when they want their children to go along to the dentist or to any other undesirable destination.
  • Believe in family members unless they have good reason to believe they are lying.
  • Develop family rules with their children’s help.
  • Express their love for their children after they have lied.
  • Avoid setting children up.
  • Use logical or natural consequences with a child who has lied. They learn to accept responsibility for their actions.
  • Clarify unethical actions to children.
  • Curb stealing by teaching the child in the moment.
  • Watch their own actions so their children learn how to do the right thing.


In short, children learn what their parents teach them. You can curtail unethical behavior and help them to grow to be honest adults by demonstrating basic moral values in your everyday life.

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