How to react when your child tells a lie

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Q: My almost-three-year-old is starting to figure out that she can lie when asked if she ripped the book, threw the food, hit her brother, etc. Totally normal, I know. How do we respond?

I don't want to punish the lying because I know she's experimenting. I want to say something so that we can start talking about the importance of telling the truth, but I'm not sure what words to use.

A: I love a good question about lying, especially when it is about a two-year-old. I know it is perplexing and even upsetting for many parents, but I remember looking down at each of my children, smiling and listening to them sweetly lie to me.

"Mum, I didn't eat the chocolate," with the evidence smeared across her face; "Mum, I took a bath," as dirt was streaked across her legs; and "Mum, I just asked Dad if I could eat this," when her father wasn't even home. I smiled then, and I smile to think of it now.

I also love this question because you recognise that this young girl is trying something new (which is the case every day with an almost-three-year-old), so you are smart to not want to punish her. It would bring guilt and shame to innocence, and exacerbate the lying.

Your child is not planning to lie to you. She does not have the neurological development to think, "First, I am going to hit my brother, then when Mum asks me if I did it, I will deny it." There is no planning in these acts; she is simply reacting to his emotions, moment to moment.

But why lie? She is holding the ripped book or standing next to it (I am guessing). It seems logical that she would simply say, "Yes! I ripped it." Reality and sense would mandate that even a young brain would see that the obvious answer is yes. But she denies it. Why?

When she was a baby, your daughter was locked into your every move, especially your eyes. She registered every feeling you had, and because children are naturally egocentric, she assumed they were all about her. She smiled and clapped; you smiled and clapped. She cried, and your eyebrows would knit together.

Likewise, you would smile at her, and her face would light up! You would scowl (after receiving bad news) while looking at her, and she would assume it was about her. She might frown. Or act panicked. Or cry. She largely still feels this way. Your daughter is not mature enough to understand all of your feelings.

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What does this have to do with lying? When she has done something "bad," and you ask her if she did it, she sees angry eyebrows or maybe a concerned look. She sees your mouth turned down, and she panics. Her brain sends a message along the lines of "Oh no! My main connection is not happy with me! Get rid of this feeling. Now." And before you know it, she says, "I didn't do it." She simply wants to escape the feeling of discomfort, the feeling of disappointing you.

Notice I am using the word "feeling," rather than the word "thought." Adults are constantly inundated with thoughts. But young children are guided and led by deep emotions that they aren't consciously aware of.

Essentially, we force young children to lie to us when we angrily ask them questions and put them on the spot.

To sidestep the lie and address the infraction, skip the questions that provoke a lie. When you know your youngster has broken something, hurt someone, thrown something, destroyed something or done anything else you don't approve of, you don't need to ask about it.

Simply say, "Okay, we have a ripped book here. Let's fix it." Or, "Your brother has been hit; let's get him some ice." Or, "The toy has been thrown and broken; let's figure out a way to make this right."

We are not glossing over the infraction. We are addressing the act right away (and even this may evoke shame in the child, so pay close attention to her).

I know you are wondering, "Is there ever a time when I can punish or give a consequence to a child for something she has done?"

Well, kind of.

As she matures, there will be opportunities to hold your child accountable and, yes, take some privileges away.

But she is simply too young to understand what is happening, and a consequence will not bring it into clearer focus for her.

If your very young child is getting into trouble frequently and lying pretty consistently, this is a message that you need to change the environment (not shame the child).

This child may need closer supervision, need to not be left alone with a sibling so long or need to have limited exposure to certain items and toys. Yes, this sounds annoying for you, but an almost three-year-old who is finding trouble needs support, not discipline.

* Meghan Leahy is a mother-of-three and certified parenting coach. She blogs at positivelyparenting.com