Creative Child

When Young Children Tell Lies

by Rebecca Eanes

One of the biggest pet peeves of parents is when they catch their children lying. It makes us feel betrayed and deceived by the ones we love most. It is a strong trigger for many parents that can cause us to react irrationally with harsh consequences. Children lie for all sorts of reasons but the truth about lying may surprise you.

Because of how the brain develops, young children (under about age 7) do not generally have the cognitive ability for deceitful lying, which requires that that they recognize the truth, can intellectually conceive of an alternate reality, and then sell that reality to someone else. Those are functions of the upstairs brain which is still very underdeveloped in young children.

So, when your 3 year old says he washed his hands but didn't, he isn't trying to deceive you. He's actually trying to please you. He probably wishes he had washed his hands. He may be afraid that you'll be disappointed because he forgot again, and more than anything, he wants your approval. So, he says, “Yeah, I washed them.”

Still, we want children to value the truth. It's important we teach them to be honest. Here are some tips on curbing lies in young children.

1. Don't punish children for lying. This only makes them feel like they're bad and leads to sneaky behavior as they fear telling you the truth will get them punished again.

2. Talk to your child about the value of honesty and that the truth makes you happy. This challenges her original thought that hearing good news rather than the truth is what you want. When the threat of punishment is removed and she knows you value honesty, she's much more likely to tell you the truth.

3. Don't shame him or call him a liar. Remember, you're influencing how he sees himself right now, and you don't want “liar” to become part of his self-concept. Instead, state the facts, such as “I know you wish you would have washed your hands, but I see they are still dry. Please go back and wash them.” This acknowledges his good intention – the fact that he wishes he would have remembered – but also separates that wish from reality.

4. Don't try to set a child up for a lie. Asking “did you clean your room” when you know she didn't is bait. Be forthright. “I see your room hasn't been cleaned yet. That needs to be done before you can play.”  

More ways to encourage honesty on page 2...

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