It is completely normal for kids aged 3 to 5 to tell untruths. They are still in a stage of development where reality is blurred with fantasy and that can have a big impact on the “stories” they tell. That being said, it is important to start to teach preschoolers the difference at an early age.
I found it very helpful to learn about the various reasons why kids this age lie and I’ve summarized some of the strategies I’ve heard about, and read about, for addressing each of these kinds of untruths.
Preschoolers Lie to PLEASE the Adults Around Them
If we can make sure that they feel loved and that they are pleasing us – even if they disagree with us – maybe that’s all we can do most of the time. This is a good reason to avoid praising or criticizing our kids. According to Naomi Aldort, author of Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves, needing to please us and live up to our expectations causes kids a lot of unnecessary anxiety.
Alfie Kohn, author of Unconditional Parenting also argues strongly against praising our kids. He describes praise as the flip side to punishment and lumps them both in the category of methods that are used to control our kids.
An alternative to praising is encouragement. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, authors of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk suggest just describing your child’s positive behaviour, without any added evaluation. This lets the child feel recognized for their positive behaviour, while allowing them to conclude themselves what they have done well.
An example of a praising statement would be, “Onetime, you are such a good boy when you help clean up!” Did you notice the evaluative word “good“? An encouraging statement would sound like, “Onetime – I noticed you helping me clean up your toys today! Wow! That’s what I call helpful.” To find even more examples of encouragement, versus praise, check out this post F is for Friendly and Healthy Self-Esteem in Kids: 10 Things Parents Can DO to Help.
So if Your toddler lies to dad about What they did all day with you (mom) – give this reply:
“It would have been fun to go to the playground today – wouldn’t it? But the truth is we went to the grocery store.”
Pointing out the reality to your child helps them start to understand that you value honesty, over your child giving you the “right” answer that they think you want to hear.
Preschoolers Lie as a Part of Wishful Thinking
Another reason why young children lie is that they may want something so much that they come to believe it is real! This is a part of that developmental stage where they aren’t always sure what is reality and what is not. It’s this kind of thinking that makes preschoolers so imaginative!
It’s important not to overreact to these kinds of untruths. Just accept that this is one way your child is expressing something that they really want to you.
A handy phrase to use when your child tells a “story” about doing something that clearly they did not, is to say, “You might wish that we had gone to play with your friend today, but remember, we really just went grocery shopping.”
Again, the focus is on helping them learn to distinguish fantasy from reality, while conveying that you value honesty.
Preschoolers Lie Because They Are Confused
This reason stems out of the same developmental stage I mentioned above. Because young children still have difficulty grasping reality, when asked questions, they may innocently “fill-in-the-blanks” with untruths as a way of completing their thoughts.
These kinds of untruths, can be dealt with in the same way as we would react to untruths told because of wishful thinking.
Preschoolers Lie to Avoid Getting in Trouble
This doesn’t just apply to preschoolers, but to all kids (and adults!). If a child fears that they are going to be reprimanded, punished, or shamed after telling the truth – then they are going to say what they need to say to make sure this doesn’t happen.
A friend told me about a recent camping weekend she spent with the Cub Scouts that relates to this form of lying. One of the cubs spilled his macaroni dinner on the ground all over one of the leader’s mess kits. When the leader found the mess and asked who had made it – all of the boys denied it had been them.
Apparently – the situation blew up into a big deal and became a bit of a “witch-hunt” to find the lying culprit! As a helper, my friend felt unsure about how to step in and stop what was going on. I can’t imagine how scared the boy who had an accident must have been feeling.
The thing is, this kind of lying can be prevented by taking a problem-solving approach when there are accidents or even when your child makes a mistake or misbehaves.
Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, advise responding to an accident or mistake by saying something matter-of-fact like, “We have a problem here. How can you make this better?”
Then you can actively involve the child in cleaning up, or making amends for the mistake.
Judy Arnall advises just describing what you see and stating your expectations for making amends. For example, you could say something like, “I see you knocked over the flower vase. I want you to help me clean it up. Please go get a towel.” or “I see you put my iPod in the toilet. Water can damage machines. We’re lucky it still works. I want you to help me put this outside in the sun so it can dry out.”
After the situation is remedied, you can engage your child in a discussion about how to avoid this kind of thing happening again. “Now that the water is cleaned up, how can you make sure this doesn’t happen again?”
Barbara Coloroso, author of Kids Are Worth It! : Giving Your Child The Gift Of Inner Disciplinealso supports a problem-solving approach with kids. She talks about not getting upset about realities (e.g. the iPod is in the toilet – we can’t go back in time and make it not in the toilet – right?), but instead focusing on how to FIX or make them better. She’s famous for saying, “What’s your plan?” to a child when discussing how to make amends.
All four of these parenting gurus would agree that the point is not to shame or punish or lecture. Otherwise, next time the child has an accident, they will want to avoid that (possibly by lying).
This strategy shows – E is for Empathy. It leaves the child’s dignity intact and always assumes the best motivations for their behaviour.
Im the iPod example above, a parent would be retty upset and worried that the iPod would be broken. But if the parents tries to assume that their child was just being curious and doing some scientific experimentation (giving them the benefit of the doubt). At say about 3 years old, I don’t feel that they are capable of doing things to purposely hurt or upset others.
If the parent had yelled at the child, or spanked them, the next time something like this happens, the child probably wouldn’t announce cheerfully to the parent that they had put the iPod in the toilet, or spilled the vase, or broken a glass…. The parent would probably find out by themselves later after more damage was done.
Preschoolers Lie Because We Set Them Up!
Situation: I get a whiff of poop and turn to my son and ask, “Did you poop in your diaper?” He answers, “No poop, Mommy!” and runs away.
Or remember our macaroni example, “Who spilled this macaroni?” and there is silence….
Why did the boys lie? Well, in the macaroni case – it was clear that the adult was upset about the spill and was focused on blaming.
The the son’s case, it was probably wishful thinking combined with trying to avoid an unpleasant situation (maybe he hates having his diaper changed!)
In both cases, the way the question is phrased – almost begs for kids to lie!
Here are some other examples of setting kids up to lie:
* “Did you break this vase?” when your child is the only one at home that could be responsible, or you saw it happen.
* “Did you eat the chocolate I told you not to?” when you clearly see the chocolate on your child’s face!
* “Why did you dump your drink on the floor?” seems to invite the answer, “I didn’t do it!” instead of focusing on getting your child to make amends by cleaning it up.
Probably the best response for all 3 of these situations is just to approach things with a problem-solving approach. State what you see and help your child take responsibility for the situation.
And in summary….
If you think about all the reasons above why kids tell untruths, it comes down to an issue of trust. If our kids feel that they can trust us to react calmly to their mistakes, and be understanding and respectful of their wishful thinking – they will indeed grow up to value honesty – a trait that we will really wish they have when they hit teenage-hood!