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What to do when kids master the art of lying

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Just as my daughter’s first words and first steps are burned in my memory, I’ll never forget her first fib. I’d left her on a bathmat, freshly washed and hugging a towel, while I went down the hall to check the front door. I turned around to discover Emily had followed me, leaving a trail of water on the hardwood floors. Yet when I pointed out the mess, she claimed she wasn’t responsible.

If not you, then who? I wondered.

“It was Grace!” she insisted, fingering a playmate who lived across the street.

My daughter was not yet three.

Telling lies at this age is not at all unusual, says Dr. Angela Evans, an associate professor of psychology at Brock University. In experiments that she and a colleague conducted with very young children, a quarter of two-year-olds lied about peeking at a toy they weren’t supposed to look at. “It’s a smaller percentage compared to older kids, and it’s not a red flag for a developmental milestone if they haven’t told a lie at two years of age,” says Dr. Evans. “But that’s when some parents might see their children telling lies.”

Don’t worry, parents. Toddler untruths are associated with highly developed cognitive skills. After all, lying is a pretty complicated task. “You have to stop yourself from blurting out the truth, and then come up with an alternative statement, and then maintain that statement,” says Dr. Evans. Most early lies – in fact, most lies at any age – are self serving, protecting the fibber from consequences they’d prefer to avoid.

Needless to say, the fictions told by a two-year-old are not going to be all that convincing. Toddlers aren’t sophisticated enough to deliver a high level of subterfuge. In Dr. Evans’ experiments, two-year-olds quickly gave themselves away by describing the toy they had supposedly never seen, instead of delivering made-up details to cover their tracks. Similarly, my daughter blamed the puddles of water on a person who wasn’t even there.

Other research has suggested that early lying ability is a predictor of strong social skills during adolescence. “When you think about it, no one wants to be friends with the person who tells them the truth all the time: ‘You look fat,’ or ‘That haircut doesn’t make you look good,’” Dr. Evans points out. Haven’t you ever coached your kid to tell Aunt Margaret how much he likes the itchy sweater she gave him? “It’s a skill to learn to lie well to protect someone’s feelings, or if there’s a surprise party. There are all these social interactions that you need to navigate.” When very young children bend the truth, they’re testing what’s acceptable and what’s not.

If your child’s excessive lying makes it hard for you to trust her, or for her to keep friends, you should be concerned. But you won’t see this at the toddler age, since lying is too complex a behaviour for her to do it frequently.

Want to gently steer your child toward truth-telling? “We’ve found that simply having a discussion about ‘telling the truth is right and telling a lie is wrong’ is not enough,” Dr. Evans says. Try to catch your kid in the act of honesty. Children respond better if you praise truthfulness rather than punish a lie. That’s especially important to remember when your kid comes clean about breaking the dish he wasn’t supposed to touch, and you’re debating whether to scold him – or to tell him how pleased you are that he was honest.

Another trick: Before you ask your child a question, extract a promise to tell the truth. It reduces the likelihood she’ll lie to you, and it’s effective from a young age right up to teenager. Now, that’s a tip you can carry forward.

Stretching the truth

Fudging the details is a common toddler practice, according to our readers. Here’s what they had to say.

“My son (three and a half) was brushing his teeth on his own and I heard a bit of a crash. When he finished up he came to me and said, ‘Mommy, I didn’t break the cup in the bathroom, okay?’ And of course he had, so we chatted about lying as best I could with someone his age. I explained that he wasn’t in trouble and I’m not mad about the cup, and what he should have said about the cup, and that lying could get you in trouble. Very blatant, but I can see how his young mind is working!”
Andrea M.

“My toddler was helping me make dinner. I turned towards the stove to stir the pasta and when I turned back, I noticed something on my daughter’s face. I asked her if she had been into the spaghetti sauce and she without a pause looked me hard in the eye and in a sincere voice said, ‘No, mommy.’ Her face was covered in sauce, from chin, to eyebrows.”
Ashley G.

“Olivia came to my husband with her new doll in one hand and a pen in the other. She looked at him and said, ‘Someone coloured on Molly.’ My husband said, ‘It looks like you did; you have the same colour pen in your hand.’ Olivia looked at the pen, then the doll, then back at him and said, ‘No I didn’t.’”
Shawna D.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, February/March 2016.

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