For young children, lying isn’t necessarily a moral issue. Developmentally they lack the capacity to comprehend the broader implications. This ability kicks in from about age six to eight. So why do children lie?
The world of the young child is fantastical, laced with reality. With heads filled with fairy tales, gumdrop trees, and blue cartoon heroes, their thoughts muddle between what could be, and what is. Young children lie for several reasons.
- To socialize and impress. Listen to these three 4-year-olds in the nether world between truth and fiction:
David: “A fly flew right into my mouth!”
Reva: “I once ate a huge, hairy bug!”
Jeremy: “Last Summer this huge pelican came straight at my mouth! And … hit me with his elbow!”
Welcome to pre-school “socializing.” Announcing they had a bowl of cereal isn’t nearly as interesting as weaving an exciting fantasy. (And, well, pelicans may have elbows.)
- To express what they wish or hope for. By listening to the “lie” we can often hear what young children desire:
Benjy: “I got a blue Plasmacar for Hanukkah that lifts me up in
Ariel: “The teacher said my finger painting was the best she ever saw!”
Jonah: “I have this Monster Robot who will do everything I say, and he even talks ‘alien’!”
Clearly, Benjy dreams of taking off on a futuristic “magic carpet,” Ariel seeks admiration, while Jonah is on a youngster’s “power” quest.
- In fear and self-defense: How often, when faced with a broken toy, a small accident, a spill, have we heard our little “offender” counter with:
“I don’t know how it happened!”
“I didn’t touch her doll!”
“Maybe a robber broke it.”
If telling a lie is “safer” than the truth, the young child will often choose what he considers is the path of least resistance.
Helpful Responses to Small Children’s Lies
Of course we want to raise honest children who understand that lying is not permissible. The first step, however, is understanding that their tales are not a moral defect. The second step is allowing our children to tell us the truth, without provoking more lies! Here are steps we can take to move them toward internalizing truth even at young ages.
1. Help them separate reality from fantasy. Now that we know their grandiose “stories” aren’t a character flaw, we can stop “disproving.”
“Benjy, you know that’s not true. You didn’t get a car for Hanukkah, and it certainly didn’t lift you up!”
“Wow! You wish you had that fancy blue car!”
“You wish you could go anywhere, any time you’d like to!”
“Now, what did you get for Hanukkah?”
By dealing with the wish, we make it known that there’s a difference between wishful thinking and reality without embarrassment or humiliation. The child is now ready to truth-tell without feeling defensive.
2. Allow children to tell us the truth – even the unpleasant ones. Our youngster tells us passionately: “I hate pre-school!”
“No you don’t.” “That’s not nice.” “You’re a smart boy who will love school!”
“Wow! I see a boy who had a bad day. Tell me about it.”
An ugly feeling from our children hurts us! Yet when we rush in to deny we inadvertently teach “denial” and discourage “truth.” Allowing the feeling invites truth, and more conversation to help our child look at different perspectives and perhaps modify.
“Ah … so you had an argument with your best friend. That’s tough. So, who did you play with?”
“ Rebecca. We went on the slide.”
“That must’ve been fun.”
“Yeah. I’ll ask her again tomorrow.”
3. When young children “cover” their obvious mistakes or naughty behavior we don’t ignore it. We call them on it without provoking even more defensive lies.
Four-year-old Adam broke his LeapFrog computer when struggling to take it from his three-year-old sister, Lisa. He quickly threw it in the attic, where it was not only further smashed, his parents found it.
DAD: “Where’s your new computer?”
ADAM: “Hmmm. Dunno.”
DAD: “Well, find it!”
ADAM: “Maybe Lisa stole it.”
DAD: “She did NOT steal it. YOU BROKE IT. You’re lying. I hate liars!” then spanked him.
DAD: “I see your new computer is broken. Too bad. I know you liked it. Maybe if I’d seen it earlier I could’ve helped fix it.”
ADAM: “Can I have another one?!”
DAD: “’Fraid not. It was expensive, and needed to be taken care of.”
This dad above didn’t get hysterical, prophesize or preach. He stayed practical and factual. Adam learned that a) I can tell Dad the truth without catastrophe; b) It might have been in my best interest to do so; c) I need to take care of my things.
If we, as adults, model truth by accepting it, understand what our child is communicating, react calmly, teach that escaping consequences through lying is only a temporary and not acceptable “fix,” and realize that in short order he or she will understand the moral implications, we can not only relax a bit, but help them on their way to decent, honorable Jewish behavior – that doesn’t involve orange jumpsuits.