While parents may be concerned when their child lies, it is not necessarily a sign of a potential problem. It can actually be a sign that your child is developing important psychological skills, as lying requires executive function skills including working memory and planning. In fact, preschoolers with higher IQ scores are more likely to lie, and there is a link between early lying and social skills in adolescence. Truth telling and lying are concepts children begin to understand as they grow and develop.
Toddlers do not understand that lying is wrong. Don’t focus on his admitting the untruth. Narrate what is happening “all your lunch is on the floor” rather than confronting “did you throw your lunch on the floor?” What may look like a lie might be an honest mistake or an attempt to protect oneself. The lines are blurred between reality, wishes, daydreams, and fantasies.
Lies preschoolers tell may be about their wishful thinking. They can also be an extension of play. At times, they are still figuring out what the difference is between fantasy and reality. We can help them understand when it is appropriate to tell tall tales and when the truth needs to be told. To help children discern the difference, parents may say “let’s talk about why telling the truth is important” or “are you absolutely sure that’s what happened?”
At this age, children begin to have the ability to tell a “white lie.” That is a sign of social awareness as it is told to benefit someone or spare someone’s feelings. Praise truth telling. Model being honest in ordinary situations. Telling someone “I can’t wait to see you” and then talking about how much you are dreading it within earshot of your child can send a mixed message about the truth. Having the child tell a telemarketer that you are not home may seem innocent, but is teaching your child to lie. When you have to teach your children to navigate tricky social situations around truth telling, such as thanking someone for a gift he does not like, tell him to think about the time the person took to choose it or the money the person spent.
More upfront and longer conversations about lying will take place during this stage. Remember that children who have strong relationships with parents and feel safe to share information with families are more likely to be truthful.
No matter your child’s age when the lie occurs, respond calmly. Discuss the importance of honesty and trust. One study found that the story of George Washington and the cherry tree was significantly more effective than the boy who cried wolf in impacting children’s use of lying. Therefore, praise your child for honesty more than you punish for lying. Let your children know the natural consequence that occurs when they are truthful. “When you are honest, I am more likely to believe what you say and trust you.”
As an adult, you may have lied to avoid getting in trouble or to prevent someone being upset with you. You may have felt worried about being judged. Children, too, have a reason for which they lied. Whether it is about a blurred line between fantasy and reality due to their development, or for one of the same reasons that you, as an adult, have lied, it may serve a function. Support your child’s development and emotions, and set limits where necessary. Rarely, lying is an indication of a more serious issue. If you have concerns, be sure to consult a mental health practitioner.
Graziella Simonetti is a parent educator for EAC Network’s Long Island Parenting Institute and works as an early childhood social worker for the New York City Department of Education. She holds an advanced certificate in parent education from Adelphi University and is a NYSPEP credentialed parenting educator.