All parents will experience joys, challenges, and especially surprises as their children grow and develop, but one behavior that can cause confusion for parents is when their young child tells whoppers, tall tales, or lies. Some parents might be concerned that this means their child will become an untrustworthy adult and then are unsure of how to respond. While behavior like telling untruths by an adult might elicit concern, it’s important to remember that a young child’s mind is nothing like that of an adult’s and telling “lies” has a different meaning for toddlers. Here's a guide to understanding what’s happening when children lie and how parents can best respond to this behavior.
Why do children lie?
All children between the ages of three and six bend the truth now and then. When this happens, it’s helpful to understand that your child is not being mischievous, but rather he is working to understand a very complex world and using his mind in a way that helps to make sense of it.
Children’s minds are different from adults’ minds, and one of the most significant differences is that children tend to rewrite reality to suit their emotional needs. As Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper explain, “This is a developmental phase and not a moral weakness, so there is no reason to feel upset with your child or to be disapproving.” In other words, parents should keep their children’s fibs in perspective and know that telling tall tales or white lies is a part of growing up and has no bearing on what kind of person they will become when they are adults.
Tall Tales and Obvious Dodges
Sometimes children will tell you about an outrageous story as if it really happened or they may claim they did (or didn’t do) something they were supposed to do (or not do) but you know the opposite is true. The following scenarios provide examples of different types of children’s untruths, the meaning behind the behavior, and how parents can respond in a way that supports their child’s growth and strengthens their parent-child relationship.
After reading a story about a ball that was lodged in a tree that no one could retrieve, a four-year-old tells his parents an outlandish story about being able to fly to the top of the tree to retrieve the ball. Instead of reprimanding him for lying and responding punitively like, “You know you shouldn’t make up stories,” or “You know you can’t fly,” his parents responded in a way that was based on an understanding that bending the truth is appropriate for the child’s age. So, instead they said, “It sounds like you would really like to help solve the problem of the ball stuck in the tree!” By acknowledging their child’s desire to help, the parents can preserve his commendable and altruistic motives to be thoughtful and kind.
One night after dinner, a five-year-old was told that she could go into the kitchen and choose two pieces of candy for dessert. When her parents came into her room to say goodnight, they saw five candy wrappers on the floor and asked her what happened. She told them, “I only took two pieces. The other wrappers were from yesterday.” Although her parents knew there weren’t any candy wrappers around from the day before, they didn’t reprimand her. Instead, they realized that she wasn’t old enough to regulate her candy intake on her own and that next time they will just hand her two pieces of candy. They told her affectionately, “Gosh, maybe it was too difficult for you to stop at two pieces of candy because it was so yummy! Next time we can help you.”
Some parents might be concerned because the child clearly knew she made a mistake and chose to lie. By keeping in mind that the part of the brain that controls impulse doesn’t fully develop until a person is in their mid-20s, parents will be able to understand that their child will need support when confronted with something they desire.
One day a six-year-old comes home from school and tells his parents that he saw a car on the highway skid off the road and then a man had to get out and walk to a car dealership to buy a new car. Knowing that their son was making up a story and understanding that doing so was his way to deal with an upsetting event, the parents responded by saying, “Wow—that’s really interesting.”
This type of response shows an interest in what he wanted to tell his parents without them having to agree or disagree with his words. To help their young child process his emotions, parents can encourage dialogue with responses like, “Tell me more.” This also models how to turn to a caring relationship to help them feel better. When the child does open up or is able to communicate their concerns verbally, parents can praise this behavior with comments like, “That is scary. Thank you for sharing that with me.”
As these examples show, children’s fibs and pretend stories are about more than just being untruthful – they are the way a young mind processes the world. By understanding this, parents can view their children’s dishonesty as a form of taking care of themselves by emotionally problem-solving. This involves distorting reality in an attempt to ward off an unwanted event, fear of disapproval from caretakers, or as a way of feeling in control of themselves and the world. It’s also important to know that as children get older, they will naturally outgrow their belief that they can change reality at will.
On the other hand, if parents confront this behavior instead of just "letting it go," then it will just exacerbate the child's need to lie, strengthening the emotions that drive the behavior, and potentially cause the behaviors to continue or increase. As Drs. Martha Heineman and William J. Pieper explain, “If instead parents adopt the Smart Love perspective that making up stories is normal behavior that will be outgrown if you respond appropriately, you will not feel obliged to react with sanctions, disapproval, or argument. Instead, you can relax and help your child understand his wish to rewrite reality.”
Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying Your Child, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Harvard Common Press, 1999.
Smart Love Solutions in Early Childhood: A Handbook for Parents, Teachers, and Caregivers, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. Smart Love Family Services, April 2010.