children-lying“Sammy, did you do a poo?” (I can smell him from the other side of the room)

“No, mama.”

“Are you sure?”

“No, mama!” (Fervent shaking of the head)

“Shall I check?”

Silence. Sammy waddles away to hide, trousers hanging out behind him.

This is the norm with my toddler at the moment, and for that matter with my 4-year old. I’m not talking about the poo, but the lying.

My kids have wonderful imaginations, and so they find it hard to tell what is a lie and what is make- believe. Indeed, until they are around 4 years old, children have a difficult time understanding the concept of a lie. Instead, at this point their imagination is in overdrive, fueling the need to embellish. They’re exploring their new-found language skills by testing the impact of words on others. Learning to lie is one aspect of this: they test boundaries to find what is right and just. But with thoughtful guidance from parents, they can begin to understand family morals and values.

Imagine if you saw your preschooler spill his juice, but he claims, “I didn’t do it!” A child this age naturally wishes he hadn’t made a mess, and he doesn’t want to get in trouble. Don’t focus on the fact that he’s lying when he denies responsibility. Instead, focus on solving the problem at hand. Give him a paper towel and say, “Let’s clean up the juice.” This way, you avoid getting into a battle about who spilled the juice, and you turn your child’s attention toward the issue of getting the mess cleaned up.

Another reason your toddler sometimes appears to stretch the truth is “magical thinking.” According to experts, when a toddler wishes an event had taken place one way instead of another, he may stretch the truth because he actually believes that saying it will make it so. For example, let’s say your toddler yanks a toy out of his baby sister’s hand, causing her to burst into tears, but then feels sorry he did it. So when you ask what happened, he says she dropped the toy herself because he wishes so much that that’s how it had happened that he comes to believe it.

Kang Lee, a senior child psychologist at University of Toronto’s Institute of Child Study did research into lying on a group of 2- and 3- year olds. In a test, the children were told not to look at something when the adults left the room. They all did (of course), but upon being asked if they looked, around 25% lied about it. Most interestingly, though, Lee’s team found that those puny prevaricators were also more cognitively advanced than their truthful peers. In particular, Lee says, the little liars had better developed “executive functioning” — the higher thinking skills that emerge as we learn. They also had a more acute “theory of mind”, which allows humans to reasonably guess what other people are thinking. “If, I were to lie to you, the reason I lie to you is because I know you do not know what I know,” he says. “So that requires me to read your mind.”

This does not mean, however, that early lying is a sign that the kids who do it are innately smarter than their truthful counterparts, Lee says. “They’re not going turn into (geniuses)… nor are they liable to become chronic liars as they mature.”

Indeed, by the time children reach the age of seven, almost 100 per cent of them will lie to cover mistakes or transgressions. Kids start with lies for fear of getting yelled at, or because at times they really don’t believe they did said act because they WISH they hadn’t done it. It’s almost a subconscious way of protecting themselves, but it can develop into a regular response.

Here are some ways you can help your child learn to practice truthfulness:

Set a good example. Show your toddler that you trust him and he can trust you by always telling him the truth. Make it a priority to keep your word, and apologize profusely if you break a promise. Kids are impressionable little beings who depend on parents to set their moral compasses.  He’ll learn more from your behavior than he ever could from your admonitions.

Encourage honesty. Instead of getting angry when he lies, thank your toddler when he’s being honest and tells the truth. You might say: “That’s great that you told me about the spilt juice. Now I understand what happened.”

Act on what you know. In a matter-of-fact way, say, “Hey, Amy, it’s not okay to take some of Jimmy’s candies. They’re his and he’s upset that you took them. Let’s give him some of yours, okay?” By taking this tack, not only have you circumvented the “confess-you-are-lying” confrontation, but you’ve also led the child through the process of reparation. In the long run, knowing how to make up is a more useful skill than knowing how to respond to an interrogation.

Change your tone of voice. How often have we been tempted to yell something (and storm off)?  Instead of ” Did you eat the chocolate?” where I’m pretty much setting her up for failure, I should use something along the gentle (not sarcastic) lines of ” Wonder who could have eaten these?”

Active imaginations are good to encourage, but don’t allow them to run rampant. Appreciate stories – even join in and add outlandish details. But when the stories are continual cover-ups for misbehavior, provide gentle reality checks and truthful alternatives.

Avoid putting your child on the spot. Try not to question him about the details of a transgression. After all, in many cases it’s patently obvious; if he has chocolate all over his face, you know exactly what happened to his sister’s candy. Often we question young children because we want them to confess, but this can create a battle where there doesn’t need to be one.

Join them in simple games that promote taking turns and playing by the rules. Guide them through the ups and downs of winning and losing. After a straight forward round, if all players are willing, call rules off for some good wholesome mayhem. Afterwards, compare the different ways of playing, and talk about what was fun or not fun in both situations.

Read books. Observing the foibles of fictional characters is a great way to deal with criminality indirectly. Discuss the moral of the story later on, or not at all. Some good books for this are:

  • Ruthie and the (not so) teeny, tiny lie – Laura Rankin
  • The boy who cried wolf – Aesop’s fables
  • Tiddler – Julia Donaldson
  • The boy who cried Ninja – Alex Latimer

Just remember that it’s normal for a preschooler (or a teen, or an adult) to lie or make up stories from time to time, and that other parents share the same experience. So don’t worry about your youngster’s truthfulness just yet.