There is your beautiful daughter sitting next to the fridge, on the floor. Laying right next to her is an empty Snickers wrapper. She has chocolate all over her face and hands. She is smiling and licking her fingers. She looks up and sees you. She looks scared, guilty.
You ask her, “Did you eat that candy bar?”
And she looks you straight in the eyes and says, “No.”
How could she do that? You can tell from her look that she knows that what she did was wrong. And she is sitting there telling you a lie right to your face even though you know what she did!
More and more, this is happening. She lied about hitting her little brother. She lied about breaking the vase. What is going on with her?
I mean, doesn’t this four year old have a strong moral compass?
The answer is: Of course not.
She understands that she is saying something that isn’t true, but she doesn’t understand that it is wrong.
Because we so often note that children are the same as us—just developmentally different—we often imbue them with characteristics they don’t have. Like the ability to understand morality. Or abstract reasoning at all.
In reality, your child is not telling you a lie. Not with any of the connotation that this word comes with. She is making pretend because she doesn’t want to get in trouble and she wants you to be happy with her.
She looks guilty because our children understand our cues, and understand what has happened in the past. This sort of social-emotional reasoning is most of what they’re doing age 7, when they begin to develop more sophisticated views of the world.
When lying, your child is doing an excellent job building the skills she will use later as the foundation for her moral reasoning. In particular, lying shows she is developing a theory of mind. She is beginning to understand that your mind isn’t a copy of her mind, and that both of you can think things that aren’t real. It is not a coincidence that lying appears in all children around that time that pretend play with monsters and tea parties begin. She is becoming extremely skilled at reading your tone of voice, body language, and facial expression to find out what you’re thinking and wanting from her. It’s a developmental leap!
What she is not doing is trying to “deceive” you in the traditional sense. She is trying to please you.
She is not yet at the point where she can exercise much self-control. So, instead of asking: how can I get my child to stop lying? Ask instead: how can I set my child up for success?
The first answer is not giving them a chance to “make pretend” that they didn’t eat the candy bar. Just say they did it and talk about what that means for now and what that means for the future. “You ate the candy bar. We are going to have to pick up our mess. In the future, you try not to eat that food when mom asks you not to; and mom will try not to make it so easy for you to reach!”
I always try to tell the child I take responsibility for setting them up. I say, “Hey, I made a mistake there.” I say it with a laugh and a smile. “Why’d I leave that out there! Of course you wanted that candy bar! Mommies can be so silly sometimes, huh?” This is not to guilt them, but to say demonstrate understanding and model character—you really do need to take responsibility for doing that. You don’t leave firearms and knives out because you don’t want them touching those things, so don’t leave out your candy and chocolate, either.
Nobody has to feel bad about what has happened. You have more information for the future, and your child just did what you would expect a child to do: eat a yummy thing and not want their parents to be mad at them.
You can also accept their make pretend at face value and move from there.
“Did you eat that candy bar?”
“No! A dinosaur did!”
“Okay. Can you help me clean up the dinosaurs mess?”
This conversation can be used to illicit the truth out of them, or to talk about how you’re not mad at the dinosaur. You can use this make-pretend to talk about how it’s okay to make mistakes, and it may make your child interested in saying that it was them. If they help to wash up and cooperate, then they’re being pro-social, which is fantastic and a real consequence of what they did.
You can also just ask your child if it is “For real or for pretend?” Again, take it out of the moral realm. They aren’t bad or good for what they did; it is just what they did.
We do want to encourage truth-telling in our children. We don’t do this by using shame and disappointment. Feel free to make it clear, calmly, that you prefer the truth. “I didn’t like that you played pretend when I asked you that. I won’t be mad at you when you make mistakes.”
You can also use a lie as an opportunity for connection and creativity. Again, just stating the situation can be a starting point for this.
“No! A dinosaur did it!”
“That’s so silly. I know you ate the chocolate, but that’s a good story. Can you tell me more? Can we draw a picture?”
When you take away the incentive to lie—anger, punishment, etc.–then your child will be less interested in doing it. It’s not that it will stop altogether; and if they’ve been punished often for it, it will take a while to earn their trust in this area. Mention that you like truth, but don’t give them a 5 minute spiel about it. It doesn’t help their understanding. A kiss and a “Next time, you can just tell me you did it, okay?” will suffice.
At toddler age, lying is very simple and is easy to detect. While we do want to emphasize the importance of truth telling, the best way to do this is not by talking about telling the truth, but by showing that we are allowed to make mistakes without being punished. That our love is not based on performance. This sets the stage for honesty later in life when their ability to lie gains subtlety and complexity. It will count when what they can choose to hide is much more important than a candy bar.
When our children are struggling and making mistakes are the times we most need to connect with them. Lying is another opportunity to do this.