Lying can be a tricky thing to deal with as a parent. Somewhere between 3 and 4 years of age most kids truly discover the art of fabrication. When this happens, a range of conundrums presents itself to their parents: from grappling with a sudden lack of dependable information, to finding a middle ground between avoiding shame and failing to convey a moral lesson, to simply keeping a straight face. Threading your way through the maze of issues is often easier when you consider the subject within an age-specific framework.

The concept of lying, as we know it, is something that evolves over the course of development. As adults, we generally agree that lying is “bad” because it can lead to confusion, danger, and, perhaps most importantly, because it betrays the fundamental trust that upholds intimate relationships. For young children, a lie has none of these meanings. At 2, children make little distinction between fact and fiction. Verbal reports are more conditioned by the ideas or images passing through a child’s mind than by a sense of obligation to convey accurate information. By 3, the developmental threshold to the golden age of recreational subterfuge, most children have an understanding of what is, and is not, an accurate representation of fact. However, the line between fact and fiction is still quite hazy for most 3 to 4-year-olds, who live in a mental universe of magical thinking.

Lies are appealing to kids this age for two primary reasons: they engage in their imagination much more commonly than a repetition of true facts, and they are a brilliant devise to protect against the inconvenient and unwanted consequences of transgressing the rules. Because preschoolers do not yet have the moral perspective that lying is something negative or wrong, there is little to stop them from taking advantage of this appealing option to “the truth.” Most parents find it helpful to think of their children’s lies as falling into one of three categories and deal with them accordingly:

Category One: Pure fiction (telling tall tales just to tell a story – like the mountain he climbed or the cartoon character he met at preschool).

Response: Indulge your child in these stories, go with it – he is just enjoying his imagination. You can start talking with him about what “pretending” is all about, but don’t feel that you have to police the line between fact and fantasy. Development will bring that into focus.

Category Two: Lies that are meant to avoid or produce a consequence, and refer to events or experiences that you did not witness, or of which you have no direct knowledge (“I didn’t take off my shoes in the park.”).

Response: Confronting the lie is likely to prompt your child to insist on the veracity of her version of the story which, although it may differ from fact, is usually an accurate representation of the picture in her mind’s eye at that current moment. Instead, try dealing with the situation without taking issue with the relative truth of that report. Example: “I think you are saying that because you know the rules are that you have to keep your shoes on outside and you know I am wondering how your socks got so dirty.”

Category Three: Lies that are fabricated right under your nose, when the truth is clear to you.

Response: These are the situations in which you can begin presenting the difference between truth and fiction. Tell your child that you can understand his reasons for lying and give him a second chance at fact before you fully bust him: “You’re saying that you didn’t hide anything in your pocket because you’d like that to be true. That way I wouldn’t take away the cookie. But what I am asking is: what’s really in your pocket?”  If he still doesn’t come clean, then get the cookie, talk about what’s true and what it means to tell the truth.

As children head into the 4-year-old year, they become increasingly capable of understanding the link between honesty and trust, and telling the truth begins to have moral significance. When it’s clear to you that your child can make these distinctions, you can begin demanding more consistent honesty and discipline appropriately.

By Lele Diamond, MFT & Noelle Cochran, PsyD

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