It has long been a debate for child professionals to completely understand whether children at a young age were capable of telling a ‘lie’. Recently, it has been concluded that the ability to manipulate the truth is much like a developmental milestone in children like learning to share or learning to brush their teeth. Ideally, this skill is usually acquired by age 4, as it requires a certain development of both social skills and language abilities. At this age, children are exploring and elaborating on imagination; this is the age of imaginative friends and telling tales, which is a highly critical milestone in a child’s cognitive development as it works on organization of thoughts, expression of feelings and symbolism. However, there is a fine line between imagining situations that never occurred and re-telling an event that has happened by altering the truth.
Children can bend the truth for a number of reasons as establishing an identity to connect with peers, to get attention, to evade hurting another’s feelings or to avoid trouble all together. However, it seems only fair to summarize that the ultimate reason children lie is due to a lacking of problem-solving skills. Children do not know another way for solving a given problem. Imagine your daughter, Sara, ate all the remaining 5 cookies, she knows that she isn’t allowed to eat her cookies before lunchtime and when confronted she mentions that she didn’t eat the cookies. Here, it is established that Sara knows right from wrong, or else she would not lie in the first place, however, the problem here is that once she DID do something wrong, she doesn’t know how to act accordingly, resorting her to lying. The key here is that as parents, it is critical to confront your child positively while teaching them the right tools to allow them to problem solve in future situations.
It is important to mention that, once you realize your child is fibbing, reacting negatively, whether by yelling or telling them off would only increase this behavior. Besides increasing the undesired behavior, a negative consequence usually instills fear in a child and loosens the trust bond in the parent-child relationship.
What should I do?
- Don’t wait to catch your child lying to start discussing the significance of truth and consequences. Pick a good time for your child and plan in advance what will be said, while maintaining a friendly rather than lecturing tone.
- Set an example– children at this age learn most of their skills/information for their parents as role models. They are also very good listeners. Take good attention when on the phone, if you are making an excuse not to attend a party/event for example. When you promise something to him/her make sure to fulfill it, if not, provide the real reason why you were not able to do so etc..
- Reason through story-time– books can be a great learning experience especially if your child already loves to listen to stories. Choose certain tales such as Pinocchio for example, after finishing or throughout the book, pause and reflect on the main ideas, actions and consequences. E.g- why is his nose getting bigger? What should he do instead? Why is it better to tell the truth than a fib? Etc..
- Personal stories– since children idolize their parents at this age, they usually love to hear about their past/experiences and imitate them. Talk about an experience where someone you know had lied and the lie kept firing back with negative consequences and that it was much easier to stay the truth from the beginning.
- Keep the door open– Once the concept of lying as been established, let your child know that if they ever lie and don’t feel good about it, you are always available to speak about it. This is a great opportunity to exercise self reflection and problem solving skills with your child. Once they describe to situation allow them to self reflect, ‘why did you feel you had to lie’ ‘what would have happened if you tell the truth’ ‘why is telling the truth better than lying in the future etc.’
- After the truth comes out– reward positive behavior when she DOES say the truth. “I really appreciate your honestly, I know it could have been easier to bend the truth but you chose to be honest I appreciate that.’