The ability to understand the concept of lying can take years for a child to fully grasp. Somewhere between ages two and three, a normally developing child will tell his first lie, but this does not mean he understands lying or why he is choosing to fib.
I arrived home today to find the pages of one our favorite books torn out of the binding. The babysitter reported that she saw my three year old daughter tear the pages out. I asked my daughter if she did, in fact, tear the book and she calmly and promptly reported, “I did not.”
Readers, we know my daughter did the deed and that she lied to me, but what next? Is it developmentally appropriate to discipline a three year old for lying? The answer is yes, but consider that discipline does not always include punishment. The developmentally appropriate discipline strategy will depend upon the age and stage of the child.
Ages 2 & 3
Most toddlers do not understand the concept of lying. Toddlers see life through a black and white lens. People are categorized as either “good” or “bad” and they never stray from their category. In the mind of a normally developing child, they see themselves as one of the good guys. Call it is a protective evolutionary mechanism or a just a down-right blessing, but toddlers think they are fabulous!
Appropriate discipline of a tot who is caught lying is for the adult to state the truth and have the child repeat it. In my daughter’s case, “What actually happened is that you tore the book. Can you practice telling the truth by saying ‘I did it’?”. Don’t waste your time breaking down the philosophy of lying (which is akin to attempting to teach the concept of multiplication at this age) or put them in their room until they will admit to wrongdoing. Instead, focus on having the child state the truth and correct their error. If they persist in stating their own reality (I did not do it!), simply state that they did do XYZ and empathize with the fact they it is hard for the child to see himself commit wrongdoing. For example, “Lucy, you did tear the pages from the book. I hear your frustration. It can be hard to accept that you did something wrong. It is OK to say that you made a mistake. Let’s tape the pages back together.”
Be patient with your stubborn child if they choose not to cooperate with your discipline. Toddlers engage in “wishful speak” (statements of desire, rather than fact). If they wish that they did not do something or cannot believe that they would make an error, they will stick to their fantastical side of the story. When a toddler says, “I did not do it” or “The dog did it”, they are actually processing the statement to mean, “I don’t see myself as capable of doing that, because I am good and I don’t do things that are bad.”. Ease your child into understanding the grey areas of life. It takes time for a child to be able to see themselves as a “good” person, who occasionally chooses to do “bad” things.
This advice also applies when a child tells wild tales (we all know that trash cans are not autonomous and cannot “eat” veggies). You can present the child with hard evidence that refutes their tale and they will persist to claim, and believe, that their story is true. Continue to discipline tale tales with feeding the child statements of truth. Present your evidence, state the truth and discipline any negative behaviors, but not the lying at this stage. Eventually, the child will develop and you will notice anxious behaviors associated with lying (avoiding eye contact, wiggling about, touching the face, etc…), which is a sign that the child does not fully believe his lie anymore. If so, proceed to the advice for age 4 & 5 as you you may have yourselves your very first genuine fib!!
Age 4 & 5
Children will begin to grasp at what a lie is at this age, but be patient with your child as it takes practice before they fully understand truth and deception. When your child lies to you, empathize with their situation. Children lie because they want to avoid punishment, they have a hard time seeing themselves as a “bad”, the line between reality and fantasy is still fuzzy, to protect a friend or sibling or to gain power by controlling others. Children, like adults, employ lies to recreate negative situations.
After empathizing with your child’s situation, encourage the child to tell the truth. It helps to demand eye-contact when the child reports his side of the story. If you know the child is most certainly lying, wait for him to willingly admit it. Once the child will admit his error, choose if you want to discipline the lie or negative behavior that she is covering up. A preschooler can only process so much discipline. Which lesson do you really want to drive home in the moment? At this age, I usually discipline the lying and overlook the negative behavior so as to emphasize how character is of the utmost importance.
Remember to forgive. A child’s deception has NOTHING to do with you and everything to do with them. Lying is a normal and necessary part of human development, so don’t take personal offense (as you might when an adult lies to you). Lying is actually a sign that your child is learning about perspective. Instead of feeling disillusioned by your baby’s budding maturity and responding with anger and disgust, reassure your child of your unwavering love. Communicate that your child can never do anything to make you stop loving them. They don’t have to hide anymore.
Use neutral times during the day to talk about what a lie is and why truth telling is important. Find a cartoon or book that addresses lying. Let them enjoy the story and talk about their thoughts when it is done. It is more important for a child to come to their own conclusion than for you to lecture them. Listen to their thoughts and ask questions that will guide them towards understanding.
Research reveals that one way young child learn to lie is by watching their parents. Even the best of us surrender to lying here and there, “Your haircut really does look fabulous!” or “Santa Claus is real, honey”. A preschooler is still rule driven, meaning he sees an action as either always right or always wrong. She will not understand if you tell her not to lie, but then you tell her teacher that you are late dropping her off because you lost your keys (not because you had to redo your hair 3 times). Teach your child to tell the truth by being a truth-teller. We lie for reasons we deem to be good and we lie for “bad” reasons, just like kids (to protect our own rear-ends!). If you can rise above, then your child will likely learn to as well.