My daughter has just turned 4 and along with this new age has come a spike in her lying to me. Her favourite right now is "daddy told me I could...." It is equally amusing as it is unsettling as I reflect on what my role in supporting her to become an honest and trustworthy citizen is... cue my reminder that she is 4 and she doesn't have to be just yet ;) You are not alone, lying can be particularly concerning for parents, as they worry that it may indicate a deeper issue with their child's moral development.
Instead of being overwhelmed, trying to nip it in the bud or going to extravagant lengths to catch her out in her lies I have chosen to celebrate! Why? Because it is a sign of a new developmental milestone, okay maybe not as exciting as those first few steps but impressive non the less. It is important for parents to understand this in order to respond to their child's lies in a supportive and constructive manner.
Before we dive right in, please know how normal it is for little ones to explore the social world of truth and lies. But why? and why now? I'll start by talking about this from a developmental perspective and then how we can respond to lying.
WE ALL LIE
Lying is a natural part of the human experience, and it is something that we all do at some point in our lives, whether we like to admit it or not. Thankfully, most of us learn to lie about the small stuff that saves us from hurting people's feelings. But WOW, what a nuance there is there right? How do we learn the difference between a harmful lie and a helpful wee little white one? That skill is developed over many years, but first we have to learn what a lie is to begin with.
The Development of Lying in the Early Years
Children typically start lying between the ages of 2 and 5, with the peak lying period occurring between the ages of 4 and 6 (give or take, we know how i feel about using children's ages to assess whether they are "normal" or not) In order to lie, a child must have the cognitive skills to understand what is true and what is not, be able to suppress their natural impulse to tell the truth (impulse control) and have the ability to create a plausible alternative story. Quite complex right? As children develop these skills, they become more proficient at lying and may begin to use it as a tool for social interaction.
They also need to have theory of mind, which is our child's ability to know that the thoughts in their brain may be different to others and that other's can't "see" what's going on in their mind. Lying requires a certain level of Theory of Mind because it involves understanding that others have a different perspective than oneself. In order to lie successfully, a child must be able to understand that the listener has access to different information than they do.
What to Do About Lying in the Early Years
- When it comes to addressing early lies in young children, my first tip is to give it little energy and worry.
- Children often tell harmless stories or exaggerate the truth in order to get attention or make themselves feel important. This type of lying is not meant to deceive or harm others, but rather to experiment with different social roles and develop their sense of self. These are the sought of lies we can pretty much go along with if we want to see and respond to the need over the behaviour.
- One effective approach is to acknowledge that you know your child is telling a lie, while also reassuring them that it is safe to come to you when they make mistakes. This can help build a sense of trust between parent and child, while also promoting a culture of honesty and accountability.
- When children tell harmless stories or exaggerate the truth, parents can respond by acknowledging their child's creativity and imagination. This can help reinforce positive behaviors and encourage children to continue to explore their world through storytelling.
- When children lie to get out of accountability, parents can respond by focusing on the behavior, rather than the lie itself. For example, if a child breaks a vase and then lies about it, the focus should be on the fact that the vase was broken and needs to be cleaned up, rather than on the fact that the child lied.
- If you know that your child is lying, for example saying their baby sister drew on the walls. instead of trying to catch them out in their lie or pushing for them to "tell the truth" Don't ask the question in the first place. If you only have 2 children and one loves to draw and one can't yet hold a crayon, it would be better to respond by saying "I see you have drawn on the wall" rather than questioning it. If they continue with their lie, we can focus on taking the lead in that moment "I know it can be fun to draw on a big canvas, I can't let you draw on the walls, you'll need to help me clean it with these sponges and then we can make sure there is paper at your art trolley for next time you feel like drawing"
- Instead of punishing or shaming your child for lying in an attempt to teach a lesson, parents can use the behavior as an opportunity to teach their child about honesty, trust, and accountability while reminding their child that there is nothing the child can do that will make you stop loving them.
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Elise Disher has over 18 years experience working and studying young children and holds a Master's degree in education amongst other early childhood, wellbeing and sleep certifications. For more information, please don't hesitate to get in contact with Elise via firstname.lastname@example.org