Q: My 3-year-old daughter has been telling lies lately. Outlandish ones and small ones, often for no apparent reason. My husband and I disagree on how to handle it, but both are afraid of this behavior getting worse if we don’t curb it. Suggestions?
A: It’s understandable to feel confused or even concerned about this new behavior in your generally honest-to-a-fault preschooler, but rest assured that lying at this age is normal. Although “lying” suggests manipulation, and oftentimes it’s more innocent than that.
Let’s talk about actual lying first. Kids typically learn to lie between ages two and four, and it’s considered a milestone because it shows they have learned that their mind is separate from other people’s minds. True lying requires higher order thinking, like anticipating consequences, organizing information, and guessing at what the other person is thinking and feeling. It involves independence, perspective taking, and emotional control – major players in good social skills, which is why some experts suggest that failing to figure out when and how to lie well can lead to problems later in life. Preschoolers sometimes lie to avoid getting into trouble or to get something they want, but if they do it’s a pretty simple lie and they generally give themselves away if there’s further questioning.
So how should you handle it when your preschooler lies?
- Don’t set traps. If you know she ate a cookie, don’t ask her if she did so you can try to catch her lying. That doesn’t build trust.
- As much as possible stay calm about small infractions. Real lies happen because the child fears the consequences. The more our child trust us to still love them and think well of them when they’ve done wrong, and to not hurt them physically or emotionally, the more they will tell us the truth. So getting mad about small things increases the chance that a child will choose to lie next time to avoid your anger and the consequences that go along with it (shame, loss of a toy, etc.).
- State what you know to be true matter-of-factly (“I see you ate a cookie”) and remind her of the rules (“We eat cookies for dessert, not snack.”).
- Engage her in a compassionate discussion about why she did it and what to do next time (“If you’re hungry, tell me and I’ll get you a snack.” “If you’re excited about the cookies we baked earlier, draw a picture of you eating one and we can talk about how great it’ll be to have one for dessert.”). If it’s an onerous task she’s lying about (washing hands), empathize with her and help her make it more fun (sing a silly hand-washing song). Teach her to use her brain for identifying a problem, expressing it, and problem-solving rather than for lying.
Now for other non-truths. The preschool set have minds that are still struggling to distinguish between imagination and reality, and they figure it out by exploring the boundary there. Sometimes they explore it out loud and in your presence, and due to their limited verbal abilities it sounds like a lie. They might be enjoying a fantasy (“I saw a fairy on the playground today”) or imagining success (after seeing an older child tie a shoe they tell you that they tied their own shoe). They might be using it as a way to protect themselves when they feel overwhelmed (“I saved my brother when he fell off his bike” after seeing her older brother wipe out).
Here’s how to handle non-truths:
- Do nothing.
Research shows that allowing your preschooler to exist in this flexible place between fact and fiction helps them figure it out at their own natural pace, develop trust in you, and strengthen self-esteem. So play along with a fantasy (“A fairy! Wow. What did she look like?”), and help her dream of success without praising her for it (“Tying your own shoes is a very handy thing to be able to do.”). When you can tell she’s using fantasy protectively, acknowledge what she felt (“That must have been scary seeing your brother fall off his bike”), or wished she felt given her fantasy (of saving him – “You must have felt so relieved.”). It’s okay to let these non-truths go at this tender age – you’ll have plenty of opportunity to address real lying in the coming years since kids only get better and better at it. Stay tuned for this in a future post!