Preschoolers, Lying, and Honesty

Little kids don't mean to be dishonest, but lying can be a bad habit

Portrait of a Small Boy

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Living with a preschooler, you may sometimes feel like you are on To Tell the Truth, trying to determine which statements that come out of your child’s mouth are real and which are objects of their imagination.

“I didn’t spill the milk,” said the 3-year-old who is standing in a puddle of the white stuff with an empty cup in her hand. “The baby broke my car.” “I didn’t take out all these toys, the dog did.” The tall tales go on and on.

But the truth of the matter is all kids lie occasionally. And although lying is a normal part of a child’s development, it’s not something you can overlook. As a parent, it’s your job to teach honesty. In order to deal with the situation, you need to know a) why your little Pinocchio is lying and b) how to teach him to value honesty.

Fib or Flight of Fancy?

Kids this age can come up with some whoppers of a story — not to be deceitful but because for the most part, they are still learning what is reality and what is fantasy. In most cases, a 3-, 4-, or 5-year-old is too young to understand exactly what a lie is. Their fairy-tale accounts are the result of an imagination working in high gear, not anything sinister.

When your 4-year-old says she didn’t color on the wall while she’s holding the crayon in her hand, what she means is that she wishes she hadn’t done it because clearly, you are angry. Since she didn’t mean to turn your bedroom wall into her canvas, in her mind she didn’t. To cut down on the yarn spinning, avoid putting her in a situation that may make her feel like she has to lie. Instead of asking angrily, “Did you color on my wall?” say, “We have a rule in this house that we only color on paper. Let’s get some towels and water and clean this up together.”

If the story your child cooks up is on the outlandish side — “There was an elephant at preschool today.” — challenge it in a lighthearted way. Ask if what she is telling you is real or made up. When she admits that she was fibbing, get in on the act and help her to elaborate — “Imagine if an elephant really came to preschool? Would you eat peanuts for a snack?” A tall tale turns into a silly story that the two of you can share and you are helping your preschooler exercise her imagination.

Honesty Policy

When your child tells a lie, use it an opportunity to talk about why being truthful is so important. Calling her a liar or yelling may cause your child to keep lying to avoid blame. To encourage truth-telling, try removing the consequences. Say, “No matter what you did, I promise I won't get angry as long as you tell the truth.” Many kids lie because they know they’ve done something wrong and don’t want to disappoint you and/or be punished. Focus on what you want your child to learn — being honest. When your child tells the truth about something she’s done wrong be sure to praise her.

If your child starts spinning over-the-top tales about something that never happened — say the time he joined the circus or the fabulous trip your family took to Walt Disney World — confront her, but not in an angry way. This wishful thinking is normal for a child this age but still needs to be corrected. Just a simple, “A trip to the circus sounds lovely. I know you wish that really happened.”

Practice What You Preach

In the course of your daily routine, chances are you tell a white lie or two. And that’s OK, for the most part. “Pro-social lies” — avoiding the truth to spare someone’s feelings — are normal and pretty much accepted. But don’t expect your take-everything-literally preschooler to understand.

If you tell your preschooler, “You must never tell a lie,” but then tell her to say to grandma that the inedible cookies are delicious, you’ll confuse her. Set a good example by being honest yourself.

It’s never too early to teach your kids honesty. Talk about why it is wrong to lie — that it makes you sad when she says things that aren’t true. When your child realizes that telling the truth is something you value, that’s something they’ll strive to reach.

By Amanda Rock
Amanda Rock, mom of three, has spent more than a decade of her professional career writing and editing for parents and children.