Parenthood is an amazing experience that fills your life with joy, love and meaning. But as parents, we also know how challenging it can be. I often find myself wishing for a parenthood manual that can tell me step-by-step what’s to come and how to handle it all. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? We can only dream…
Until such a manual magically appears on the market we deal with whatever parenthood throws at us the best that we can. Not long ago I was faced with one of these challenges that kept me awake wondering how to handle it. My toddler started telling little lies.
At first, I didn’t think much of it or reacted in any notable way. I was somewhat amused and that was it. But as weeks passed I noticed that he did it more and more. It wasn’t anything bad but still, I felt that I needed to do something about it because, if left unacknowledged, it could potentially escalate and transform into something more serious.
So I started reading about it as much as I could and applying most of the things I learnt. I am happy to say that a few months later my son is starting to understand the difference between truth and lie, how appropriate white lies are and I think he now has the courage to own a mistake without feeling the need to lie.
Why do toddlers lie?
In recent years, lie-telling behaviour in kids between the ages of 3 and 10 have received increased attention from developmental psychologists in order to understand their social-cognitive development.
Studies have shown that children as young as 3 years old have a basic moral understanding of lying but this behaviour matures after the age of 10.
We now understand that lying is a normal part of a child’s development. Between the ages of 2 and a half and 3 children’s language skills become more sophisticated, which will allow them to express themselves better. This also means that they will start experimenting with the truth. Around this age, kids will also realize that mom and dad may not know everything. In addition to this, kids this young may not realize where truth ends and lies start. To them, the delimitation between the two is still blurry.
Like with adults, kids tell lies for several reasons:
- When they think that they are going to get in trouble for something that they have done
- To make someone else feel better (white lies)
- To make themselves look better
- When they want to obtain something
- They may be seeking attention
- To make reality more exciting
- Strong emotions that they may not know how to handle
- They are simply experimenting with a newly learnt behaviour
Strategies to stop kids from lying
It helps to remember that young children don’t mean any harm when they start lying. It’s part of their normal developmental process. It’s our job, as parents, to acknowledge this behaviour and steer our children towards telling the truth.
Here are a few strategies that you can use with your little one(s) to help them understand the importance of telling the truth. I have used them with my son and they work. Although he will still say the occasional tall tale, I am happy to see that he now is beginning to understand the difference between truth and lie and he knows why it is important to tell the truth.
- Explain the difference between truth and lie
Before anything, it’s important for young kids to have at least a basic understanding of what truth and lies are. Even though they will not fully grasp these concepts until they are 4 or 5 years old you can still talk to them about it.
I started touching this subject with my son just before he turned 3. What I did was explain these concepts through an example: “If I told you that the grass is red, would this be correct (true) or incorrect (a lie)?”
- Honesty as a family value
Make it clear that honesty is something you value greatly in the family. Let the child know that no matter how difficult it may be sometimes to tell the truth, mom and dad are there to help and love him/her no matter what. The family is a safe place to tell the truth.
- Explain the consequences of lying
Tell your child that lies have a way of surfacing so chances are he/she will get caught. When this happens there are always consequences for lying. One of these consequences is that people will stop trusting them. You can illustrate this by telling them the popular story about the boy who cried wolf.
- Be a role model
Children are often a mirror of ourselves. They will mimic our way of speaking, our gestures and our behaviour. If they notice that you are deceiving them, for example, telling them that you are going to the park instead of home just to stop them from crying when in reality you have no intention of taking them to the park, they will get the message that lying is ok and that it will help them get out of undesirable situations.
So make sure that you are always truthful.
- Be calm when catching them with a lie
You enter the room only to discover that an entire wall has been scribbled on (with a permanent marker to make matters worse). Your child looks you in the eye and says: “I didn’t do it, mommy! It wasn’t me!” You will probably feel angry, disappointed and frustrated that, besides the fact that you have some cleaning to do, your little one brazenly lied to you.
A natural reaction would be to raise your tone and express that frustration in a loud manner. This will only make the child fearful of telling the truth the next time s/he does something wrong. Instead talk calmly, explain that what they’ve done is wrong and how lying makes you feel. Of course, now it’s the time to use whatever consequences for lying that you may have in place.
- Avoid situations where they feel the need to lie
You know that the wall art belongs to your child. The marker is in his/her hand and just look at that guilty little face. Asking questions like “Did you do this?” will only open the opportunity for the child to lie. Instead simply don’t give them the chance by saying something like “That is a lovely drawing but perhaps it is in the wrong place. Now you need to help me clean it and we can make another drawing on a piece of paper. Does that sound good?”
- Praise honesty
Truth is not always easy to tell. So, every time your child owns up to a mistake and tells the truth, be sure to let him/her know how much you appreciate it.
Understanding why your child felt the need to lie will help you react to it appropriately. For example, if the child lied to make himself/herself look better this might be a sign of low self-esteem. The solution to stop this behaviour in the future may be to take steps to boost the child’s confidence in addition to having a conversation about lying.
Tall tales happen especially with toddlers who don’t have a full understanding of where truth ends and lies begin.
My little boy will often say things like “I went to the Zoo today” and then go on to tell me what he did there when I clearly know that he didn’t go because he’s been at kindergarten all day. But to him, the imaginary trip to the Zoo is more exciting than the playgroup.
Should I treat this as a lie? To be honest, I don’t. What I do, is I make sure that he understands the difference between reality and make-believe by saying things like “Did you really go to the Zoo or is this something that you wish happened?” I sometimes even play along because I believe that encouraging kids’ imagination is important.
I found this one quite tricky to explain to my little one because I didn’t want him to end up confused. Lying is not good, however, certain types of lies are ok. Hmm…
Young kids are generally brutally honest and will say things as they see them (“ideally” as loud as possible). So, we teach them that certain things, even though they may be true, can hurt a person’s feelings. Since we want to raise truthful children but who are also empathic and socially adept they will certainly need white lies to accomplish that.
Having said this, what if we could reduce the number of white lies that we say on a daily basis by replacing them with something called “strategic honesty”.
Instead of saying “I love your new haircut” (when in fact you think it’s horrible) find something positive and true to say about it. For example, “This haircut makes your hair look really shiny”. Of course, strategic honesty may not always work or being put on the spot you may not find anything positive to say in which case white lies are the way. But at least we can try to reduce the amount of “prosocial lies” by using this strategy. It’s something that I think it’s worth teaching my kids.
Hearing your child lie for the first time can be a little disconcerting. I know that it was for me. But we need to remember that it is a natural developmental stage that all kids go through. What matters is how we handle it. It is never too early to start explaining the difference between truth and lie and letting the child know your expectations.
Also, when lying happens frequently it’s worth investigating and seeing what the real reason behind the lies might be.
Bringing up truthful children is a long haul job. You will constantly have to reinforce the idea that lying is a bad thing with patience, calm and dedication.
Author: Cristina and Monica are the voices behind What Does Mamma Say. They are two friends, teachers and proud mothers.