Your three-year-old accidentally knocks over a box of crayons and, as they scatter across the family room floor, looks you straight in the eye and boldly declares, ‘I didn’t do it.’
A child’s first lie. A bit unsettling to parents? Sure. The end of innocence? Maybe. A predictor of future immoral conduct? Not at all. Just typical toddler behaviour. Most toddlers have not yet learned that honesty is the best policy – although by the third year, many have noticed that dishonesty can sometimes get them out of a tight spot.
There are several reasons why toddlers may lie: The need to retain the illusion of goodness. By toddler reasoning, denying you did something bad makes the misdeed go away and allows you to remain good. The wish to avoid facing consequences. The thinking goes: ‘If I don’t tell Daddy that I knocked the crayons over, maybe I won’t pick them up.’ A still-faulty memory. When Jonathan accuses Lara of grabbing the truck of him, he may already have forgotten that he grabbed it from her in the first place. Difficulty distinguishing fully between reality and fantasy,. When Kayla gets a new doll, Hillary sees nothing dishonest in saying, ‘I got a new doll, too.’ After all, speaking her fantasy makes her feel better. And Andrew, a very imaginative child, may make up whole stories yet neglect to mention that they’re made up-from his point of view, he’s telling tales, not lies.
Since toddler fibs aren’t malicious or calculated, they’re not a cause for concern – or for punishment. Assuming a child lives in an atmosphere of honesty and trust, the fibbing stage will eventually end. As the little voice within grows louder, and as that little voice begins to play a bigger role in decision-making and in social interactions, your toddler will outgrow the need to lie. In the meantime, you can deal with untruths and nurture the development of honesty in the following ways:
- Don’t make it easy for your toddler to tell an untruth. Don’t ask ‘Did you…?’ when you know very well the answer is yes. Say instead, ‘I know that you…’ or ‘I saw you…’
- Make it easy to tell the truth. If you say, ‘Something happened on this cup of juice. How did it get on the floor? I wonder…’ you stand a much better chance of securing a confession than if you hurl an accusation. ‘Look what you did – you spilled your juice again!’ is more likely to elicit an indignant ‘I did not!’
- Make telling the truth pay off. If a three-year-old admits to crayoning on the family room wall and you react to the admission with rage, it’s easy to see how the child might be discouraged from admitting future misdeeds. If, on the other hand, you show appreciation for honesty (‘I like when you tell me the truth’), the child is more apt to be truthful. (Of course, even when misdeeds are confessed, the appropriate disciplinary action still needs to be taken; for example, if the usual penalty for drawing on the wall is helping to scrub off the scribbles or having drawing privileges suspended temporarily, that penalty should be imposed.)
- Help your child to see the whole truth. Often, a toddler will remember only part of what happened, in which case you may have to help extract the full story. ‘Sam hit me’ may be the truth, but not the whole truth, which may be that your child pinched Sam in the first place. In that context, the accusation looks a lot different, and with a little gentle prodding your child will come to understand that.
- Don’t force your toddler to lie. Too much pressure, standards that are too high, punishment that is too severe, all can lead a child to lie in order to avoid extremely unpleasant consequences.
- Leave the grilling to the detectives. If you don’t get a spontaneous confession, don’t give your toddler the third degree. When you and your toddler both know that he or she did something wrong, insisting on an admission of guilt is unnecessary. And when your child maintains, ‘I didn’t do it!’ angrily countering with ‘You did, too!’ will only encourage a shouting match or tantrum. Instead, let your child know (even if its for the twentieth time) that what was done was unacceptable. If there’s a punishment sure, impose it. If you don’t know for sure that your toddler is guilty, however, don’t press it. But do say, ‘I hope you’re telling me the truth. If you’re not, I’ll be very sad.’
- Make honesty your policy. Nothing teaches a toddler to be honest better than a parent’s example. Be truthful in your dealings – large and small. Don’t tell your toddler that taking the splinter out won’t hurt, when you know it may; don’t tell the train conductor your three-year-old is only two in order to pay a reduced fare; don’t tell friends you can’t join them for dinner because you’re down with the flu, when the truth is you’d rather see a film; don’t tell a neighbour you have no idea who trampled her flower bed when you know your dog is the guilty party. Even ‘little whilte lies’ can compromise a child’s understanding of the value of honesty.