Since almost all preschoolers will lie at one time or another, it is important for parents to understand that lying can be a normal part of child development. Sometimes young children tell "tall tales" because they have difficulty recognizing the differences between fantasy and reality. Other times they lie because they want to avoid being punished for something they have done wrong. Your responses as a parent should be individualized and flexible.
In most cases, you already know that your child is responsible for the misdeed even before the lie is spoken. Parents usually can spot when a preschooler is lying to cover up a wrongdoing. Children worry about the punishment to come. Yet, young children tend to leave fairly obvious clues, or you may have even witnessed the event.
You must understand that preschoolers do not yet realize that it is wrong to lie. To encourage truthfulness when you suspect a wrongdoing, be upfront but not confrontational as you question your child. For example, ask an open-ended question like, "How did your walls get crayon all over them?" rather than a closed-ended one like "Did you scribble all over your walls?"
If your child has told a lie, keep your response short and to the point. Be sure to tell him first that you believe he has lied and because of that, consequences will follow. For example, if your child denies drawing on his walls, you might say, "I know that you drew on your walls, as I saw you do it earlier today. Now I will help you clean it up, but it is never OK to lie to me." As a parent, do not ignore these seemingly small or harmless lies because teaching kids at young ages that lying is not acceptable will help mold their behavior as they get older.
It is always helpful to catch your preschooler being good, too! Reward her when she tells the truth. Remind her, "I'm glad you told the truth about what happened. When you tell me the truth, I can trust you, and that makes me happy."
Preschoolers also "lie" when they tell "tall tales" or play with an imaginary friend. They love to use their imaginations to come up with wild tales about themselves, their family and their friends. These types of stories help kids learn the difference between what is real and what is pretend. While these exaggerations may sometimes be embarrassing, they are not intended to hurt anyone. These are good opportunities for you to teach your child the difference between fact and fiction. You can gently try to help your child focus on reality without directly contradicting his story. For example, when your child says, "It's a trillion degrees outside!" you might respond, "It certainly does feel hot out, doesn't it?"
Other times preschoolers make up stories or lies about what they'd like to be true, especially when they feel the truth isn't very much fun. For example, after spending the day at a circus with your daughter, she might insist that she's a trapeze artist and refuse to go home. At this point, it's appropriate to say, "We certainly enjoyed the circus today and I know you wish we could stay longer, but the truth is that you're a little girl, not a trapeze artist, and now it's time to go home." While sometimes hard for them to understand, having the truth clearly spelled out helps kids to sort out the differences between what they would like to be true and what actually is true.
Remember that children learn right from wrong by watching and listening to the adults around them, especially their parents. If you have a habit of sharing even "little white lies," children will quickly learn (interpret) that lying is acceptable, and not understand the real messages about telling the truth that you are trying to convey when they lie.
Last updated May 29, 2011