Some developmental milestones are lots of fun, and others…well, they’re not so much fun. Lying is one of those milestones that I could really do without.
I don’t like lies. No, not even the small ones. We don’t even tell our kids the jolly man in red is real (we say it’s a game that everyone pretends together). So lying was a milestone that I have been dreading years.
One of the first challenges of lies is discerning how to distinguish between lies and pretend. Around the age that kids begin to lie, they are in season full of imaginative play:
The floor is the ocean and our rug is a boat.
There is a girl in our house from the Orange Planet.
There is a monster hiding in the tent FoR rEaL.
These aren’t lies, but rather the product of full and vivid imaginations. Lies normally become a problem when our kids use them to hide things from us. Our kids learn that we are not all-knowing, and pretty soon you are watching your kid hit his brother and telling you that he didn’t even touch him.
Once they learn that you don’t actually see and know everything that they do, they begin to realize that they can lie. And those first lies are motivated by their primary need: connection with us. Addressing lies at an early age is an important part of establishing and maintaining honesty and connection for the lifetime of the parent/child relationship. When kids begin to lie, they do so in order to maintain a connection with the trusted adults in their lives.
Scenario: Every time your preschooler breaks something, you fuss/punish/yell/get disappointed. Your preschooler interprets your reaction as disconnecting. Your child realizes you didn’t see what happened and experiments with lying to you in order to avoid a threat to their connection to you.
If a child’s first lies are all about creating connection, then how we respond to lies is of the utmost importance. Try these tips for responding to your child’s lies:
Offer empathy: “If I broke a lamp, I might be feel bad or nervous to tell someone.”
Reassure: “I love you always. What you do does not change how much I love you.”
Create an Expectation: “It’s important to tell me what really happened. Saying what really happened, which is also called “the truth,” helps me keep everyone safe. The truth also makes our relationship stronger.”
Connect: If your child tells the truth, praise their honesty. Give them a hug or a high five. Focus on connection first, then you can establish any necessary consequences later. If you can maintain connection through the consequence too, that’s ideal. For example, cleaning up a spill or mess together.
When we teach our kids that it is safe to make mistakes around us, then they are going to be less likely to lie to us when they make them. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have rules, boundaries, and consequences; kids feel safest when parents establish secure boundaries. But if we want honesty, then it is up to us to establish connection first.
Here are some ways that you can create a culture of honesty in your house:
Teach about Truth with Games
Truth and trust are difficult concepts for preschoolers to fully grasp, but we can begin teaching them in simple ways. One fun way can to do this is to talk about the environment around you. Tell your kids that you are going to say one thing that is real and true and one thing that is not true or real. Then get silly! For example, if you are outside you can say: “The grass is green and the trees are made of gummy bears.”
This is the kind of silly game that appeals to preschoolers and can get your whole family laughing, fostering connection while teaching an important concept.
Make the conscious choice to make honesty a priority in your home. Our kids are experts in our behaviors and moods by the time they can talk and they are going to imitate much of what we do. This means that the easiest way to teach our kids how to be honest is to do it ourselves.
Talk About Your Mistakes
Whenever you make a mistake, don’t try to hide it from your kids. When you are able to share your own mistakes and emotions about the mistakes you make with your kids, it shows them that you trust them as well. Connection and trust become a reciprocal experience.
For example: You burnt dinner and have to order pizza. Say, “I was really embarrassed when I burnt dinner (restating what happened, naming emotion). I know you might be feeling hungry or disappointed (empathy). I am sorry (apology, if necessary). Are you excited for some pizza?! (connection)”
When I fuss at my oldest when he lies to me, he physically runs away from me. I am learning through experience that if I value honesty and authenticity more than I value my connection with my child, then I am likely to lose both. Teaching our kids about honesty is crucial, but connection is far more critical. My hope is that we continue to increase both in all of our homes.
Pursuing trust and truth together,