My youngest daughter has only recently become reliable about brushing her teeth. I can tell, because the sink is now dotted with gobs of toothpaste when she claims to have brushed. Before this development, her routine was to pretend to brush her teeth, only for me to find a dry sink and a dry toothbrush. How she went from being determined to pull one over on her unsuspecting parents to someone who now brushes so enthusiastically that the sink suffers from her efforts was partially a matter of waiting for her to mature. But as parents we want to do more than just wait and hope. There are steps that we can take to drastically reduce lying and guide children toward honesty.
Experts believe that children learn to lie at about age 4, but one of my best friends disagrees. “Children are born learning how to lie,” she insists. “They just don’t learn to use it to their advantage until age 4.”
And it’s true that as a preschool teacher I have heard fantastic yarns spun by children even younger than 4. One little girl convinced me that her father had choked on a plastic straw, a hazard that required hospitalization. Another routinely insisted that her mother was picking her up at noon, even if she was staying at preschool for the afternoon. These children were learning to lie, or as my friend puts it, learning to use their lies to their own advantage. “If I insist that I’m leaving at noon, will that make it true?” wonders the young child. “How exciting would it be if my dad got to ride in an ambulance?” the other may have thought. Through this type of experimentation, children eventually learn the difference between fact and fantasy, lying and truth-telling.
How can we best guide our kids to tell the truth, particularly to their parents? Here are some suggestions for bringing out the best in our children:
Don’t put them in the position to lie in the first place
This is an important point, especially as kids get older, when a lie would compound or complicate the situation at hand. If you are already fairly certain your child has committed an offending behavior, explain your thinking rather than ask what he or she did. For example, rather than asking, “Did you hit Geoffrey?” you can say something along the lines of, “I heard that you really wanted that toy and Geoffrey is crying. I think you got mad at him and hit him.” Saying, “I see cookie crumbs on the table and it makes me think you took a cookie even though I told you not to” rather than, “Did you take a cookie after I said not to?” will help your child to not be tempted to lie in the first place.
Talk often about the difference between lying and telling a story
Preschool-age children in particular don’t always realize the difference between fact and fiction. Point out these differences when reading stories and talk about how it’s okay to make up stories for fun but not okay to try and trick or mislead someone on purpose.
Acknowledge the child’s feelings
In the example of the preschooler who tried to convince me that she was leaving at noon, I could say, “You wish your mother came for you at noon, don’t you?” Discussing these types of situations helps them begin to understand that saying something aloud does not make it true, as much as they might wish it were so.
If your child hears you tell someone, “I’m on my way” when you haven’t left the house, they are learning that small lies are acceptable. Children will learn from you whether you want them to or not, so if you choose to tell such “little” lies in front of them, be aware that they will imitate you. On that note…
Talk about what to do if the truth is unkind
We all have an expectation of honesty, but if someone asks, “Do you like my dress?” you may not actually want your child answering, “No, it’s so ugly!” One option is to practice finding one nice thing to say about a situation rather than lie about it. Teach them how you want them to react in such situations by discussing them ahead of time or as they occur. This can be confusing for children, so it is helpful to consistently point out these types of conversations as they occur.
Make it easier to be honest
Of course, if our children are afraid that we will blow up or punish them harshly for their mistakes, they will be more prone to trying to cover up their transgressions with lies. The more forgiving we can be, the less they will try and hide things from us.
We all want our children to grow up to be truthful and honest. Following these guidelines will help you and your child navigate the sometimes-difficult process of understanding the difference between lying and pretending.