“I’m not doing anything.” “I didn’t hit him.” “I already went to the bathroom.”
The “minor” lies children tell often involve things they don’t want to do, such as brush their teeth or take a shower. A child will say, “Yes, I washed my hands,” when she hasn’t, or “I didn’t eat any cookies,” when she has. Kids sometimes don’t tell the truth when they want to avoid something they don’t want to do. “I already brushed my hair.” They also distort the truth, because they don’t want to get into trouble or be reprimanded. “I didn’t take his ball; he gave it to me.”
One five-year-old hid her grandma’s keys because he didn’t want her to leave: “I don’t know where Grandma’s keys are!” Young children believe that if they say, “I didn’t do it,” others will believe him. That’s just how preschool-aged children think.
All children are exposed daily to examples of questionable honesty. Parents say, “I’ll be off the phone in a minute,” and then they talk half an hour longer. Teachers say, “I’ll get to you soon,” but they leave the child waiting. Television commercials promise exciting toys, but children discover that the products don’t actually work or meet expectations. After watching a commercial, one fouryear-old said, “They’re lying about what that doll does, and you’re not supposed to lie.” They also hear adults offering false excuses. “I’m so sorry I can’t make the meeting tonight, but I’m not feeling well.” And many parents, as a way to get their three-year-old to cooperate, will say (with a wink) to their five-year-old, “Pretend that you’re going to bed now.”
A child isn’t lying when he says, “I have five cookies” when he only has two, or “I have that toy, too,” when he really doesn’t. Young children have strong imaginations, and they don’t have a concept of numbers.
The way you talk to your child about lying is important. Instead of asking, “Did you spill the milk?” or “Did you take her toy?” try addressing it differently, “Let’s clean up the milk together.” “You need to give her the toy back.”
Instead of angrily shouting, “You’re lying again!” show some understanding of your child’s position. Say, for example, “I think you made up that story because you were afraid I’d get mad at you.”
A child might distort the truth because he finds his parents’ discipline too threatening. If the consequences of misbehaving are very harsh, a child will lie to avoid them. And if parents impose heavy punishments for lying about the misbehavior, he may be even more afraid to admit the truth.
If you’ve eased up on your reactions and your child’s still lying, look at other aspects of his life. Is he having problems in school? Is he able to make friends? Is he getting enough positive attention at home? Observe him at play and ask his teacher for observations and suggestions.
As long as your child’s lying isn’t excessive, you don’t need to worry. Just watch his behavior, reinforce examples of honesty, and continue talking about telling the truth.