Recently, my youngest daughter has become reliable about brushing her teeth (I can tell because the sink is now filled with gobs of toothpaste when she claims to have brushed). Before this development, though, her routine was to pretend to brush her teeth, only for me to find a dry sink and a dry toothbrush afterward. How she went from someone determined to pull one over on her unsuspecting parent to someone who now brushes so enthusiastically that the sink suffers from her efforts was partially a matter of awaiting her maturity. But, as parents, we want to do more than just wait and hope, and there are steps you can take to drastically reduce lying and guide a child toward honesty.
Experts believe that children learn to lie at about age four - but one of my best friends disagrees. “Children are born learning how to lie,” she insists. “They just don’t learn to use it to their advantage until age four.” And it’s true that as a preschool teacher, I have heard fantastic yarns spun by those even under the age of four. One little girl convinced me that her father had choked on a plastic straw, requiring hospitalization. Another routinely insisted that her mother was picking her up at noon, even if she was staying at preschool for the afternoon. These children were learning to lie, or as my friend puts it, learning to use their lies to their own advantage. ‘If I insist that I’m leaving at noon, will that make it true?’ wonders the young child. ‘How exciting would it be if my dad got to ride in an ambulance?’ the other may have thought. Through this type of experimentation, children eventually learn the difference between fact and fantasy, lying, and telling the truth.
So, how can you best guide your child toward telling the truth, particularly to you? Here are some suggestions for bringing out the best in your child:
Don’t put them in the position to lie in the first place. This is important, especially as your child gets older and a lie would compound or complicate the situation at hand. If you are already fairly certain your kid has committed an offending behavior, explain your thinking to your child rather than asking them about what they did. For example, rather than asking your child, “Did you hit Geoffrey?” you can say something to them along the lines of, “I heard that you really wanted that toy and Geoffrey is crying. I think you got mad at him and hit him.” Saying, “I see cookie crumbs on the table and it makes me think you took a cookie even though I told you not to” rather than, “Did you take a cookie after I said not to?” will help your child not to be tempted to lie to you in the first place.
Talk often about the difference between lying and telling a story. In particular, preschool-age children don’t always realize the difference between fact and fiction. Point out these differences when reading them stories and talk about how it’s okay to make up stories for fun but not okay to try and trick someone on purpose.
Acknowledge your child’s feelings. In the example of the preschooler who tried to convince me that she must leave preschool at noon, a model response would be, “You wish your mother is coming for you at noon, don’t you?” Discussing these types of situations helps a child begin to understand that saying something aloud does not make it true, as much as they might wish otherwise.
Model honesty. If your child hears you tell someone “I’m on my way” when you haven’t left the house yet, your child is learning from you that small lies are acceptable to tell others. Your child learns from you, whether you want them to or not. If you choose to tell these small types of lies in front of them, be aware that they will imitate you.
And on that note...
Talk about what to do if the truth is unkind. We all have expectations of honesty but if someone asks your child, “Do you like my dress?” you may not want your child answering, “No, it’s hideous!” One option is to practice finding one nice thing to say about a situation rather than lie about it. Teach your child how you want them to react in such situations by discussing them ahead of time or as they occur. This can be confusing for children, so it is helpful to be persistent in pointing out these types of conversations as they occur.
Make it easier to be honest. Of course, if your child is afraid that you will blow up or punish them harshly for their mistakes, they will be more prone to trying to cover up their transgressions with lies. The more forgiving you can be, the less they will try and hide their mistakes from you.
We all want our children to grow up to be truthful and honest; it can even be a safety issue at times. Following these guidelines will help you and your child navigate the sometimes-difficult process of understanding the difference between pretending and lying.
Freelance writer Jill is a teacher, wife, and mother of four kids. Check out her website, Do Try This at Home, dotrythisathome.net.
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