Children experience the world through a different lens than adults and are learning to tell the difference between what is “real” in their imagination, and what is real in the world. Often children lie for very similar reasons as adults – they feel trapped, are afraid of being punished or rejected, or sometimes just because it seems easier. As adults, most of us also aren’t always accurate truth tellers either. Sometimes to help someone feel better we omit information or tell what we call “white lies to protect ourselves or others. Sometimes, like children we distort the truth to avoid an unpleasant outcome. Yet somehow, we often expect our children to be skilled at always “telling the truth,” and we get angry, and disappointed when they don’t. We can encourage them to be honest by modeling, by ensuring that they are not shamed or punished for mistakes, and providing opportunities for them to repair harm caused by lying. It takes time to develop this skill. Here are some more ideas:
- Remember development. Your child is growing their brain – and as they do so, they are exploring the power of their words and many perspectives – including perspectives that adults would judge as “not real.” Four and five-year olds are known for this kind of “play.”
- Join in imaginative play. Young children often blend fantasy and reality. It can be fun to join in the game and enjoy the story. If you are concerned that they are struggling to separate what is real from what they might want you can be explicit when you describe their play. “You really want to go to Disneyland! It’s fun to pretend we are on our way.”
- Focus on the solution. When you know that your child has not followed through on something (feeding the dog, taking out the trash), say, “I notice you haven’t fed the dog. Can you do that now?” rather than trying to catch them in a lie by asking, “Did you feed the dog?”
- Describe what you see. Say, “This doesn’t sound like the truth to me. Sometimes it can be scary to be honest” without accusation or blame. Children can easily be threatened or feel trapped into lying.
- Respect your child’s privacy if they do not want to share with you.
- Model and talk about mistakes. When you are able to talk about your mistakes and model a repair, it will be easier for your child to acknowledge their mistakes and fix them too.
- Avoid punishment. Sometimes children will resort to lying if they are afraid of what might happen if they tell the truth. When your child tells the truth about something they did wrong rather than getting angry or taking something away from them focus on the fact that they are taking responsibility for a mistake. How can they fix it? What will they do next time? When they don’t perceive they are “in trouble” for messing up they will more likely own it the next time.