So Your Toddler Lies, Way To Go

by kate on March 30, 2021

Yea! Your child has started lying to you. Looks like you’ve got an intelligent kid on your hands.

Lying, like cheating and stealing (which your child does, too, by the way), can actually be a good thing. Even though it does have a stigma attached and brings to mind visions of the principal’s office or mall security cops or even worse. Yet for children under 7, who incidentally lie, cheat and steal all the time, those actions are wholly different actions than we adults think they are.

Let’s break down lying for a young mind. Basically, for a child to lie, she has to simultaneously hold a number of realities in her mind:

A) She will have to recognize the truth - the thing which she is NOT telling you.
B) She will know that you won’t want to hear the thing which she is NOT telling you.
C) She will have to create an alternate reality.
D) She will create a reality (the lie) that she knows will please you.
E) She will defend that lie as if it’s the absolute truth, making another lie.

On the one hand, you can see why lying gets a bad rap. It germinates, repopulating itself until a greater force interrupts its devious ways.

A Sign of Intelligence

On the other hand, lying is a mark of serious intelligence (something I learned in the awesome book NurtureShock). Looking at lying in the best of light, for youngsters that is, you can understand that a highly creative, observant and adaptive mind is at work.

Children approach lying in a wholly different way than adults. They don’t understand the deception as something wrong, something bad. They are creating realities just the way they don costumes and become knights, wielding swords to stab the bad guys. It’s evidence of their fertile imaginations at work.

In that sense, they cannot be held accountable for their lying words in the same way adults are. Because children are not little adults. Incidentally, are you teaching your child to lie?

Luckily, our children are so completely transparent, we know when they are lying. You can see it. It’s unmistakable.

Handling the Behavior

Often, because lying is so distasteful to adults, we meet the lie head on. We force our children to acknowledge that they lied and by doing so, we create the ‘badness’ around it. We change their safe world - where they can explore and try on different realities - and foster one where they feel the need to hide. To lie even more. It becomes painful to everyone.

Take for example “did you go to the potty?” Basically you just laid the groundwork for a lie. You find yourself faced with a “yes” and you know the answer is “no” because your child has her hands shoved between her legs and is doing the potty dance. How to cope?

Typically, parents fall back on The Lecture. We tell our kids that lying is bad, that ‘you don’t lie to me.’ This scrambles our child’s mind because they are lying because they want to make us happy.

Most often they are telling you the answer they think you want to hear. They want to please you. So by telling them ‘don’t lie’ you are saying I won’t be happy with you either way. Of course, you see it as saying you WILL be happy if they tell you the truth. Only you aren’t a toddler, with a toddler’s understanding of the world.

To them, lying is creating. Fictionalizing. Pretending. But then it gets all weird when we have these strong reactions.

A good rule of thumb is to anthropomorphize their world. So, if they stole a candy from the grocery store, work with the scenario. “Did that candy jump in your pocket?” Because to them, it did. It doesn’t matter that their hands provided the platform. Simply take the candy out and put it back. In this way, your child is still good on the inside. She just needs to learn that candy stays on it’s shelf.

By keeping their world safe, you make it easier for them to please themselves AND you by telling the truth.

Communication starts early. They will soon - sooner than you can believe - be a teenager with a fertile imagination and great powers of deception. By tilling the soil of your communication with compassion, your child will find safety in telling you the truth. Also, and this seems to make no sense but it’s true, by allowing them room to lie as youngsters, you are demystifying it, which, ta da, makes them lie less.

photo credit: The Wolf

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Emily (CityBabyLiving.com) March 30, 2021 at 5:49 am

Thanks! I never looked at the lying like this and always just tried to get my daughter to tell the truth. I’ll try a different approach and see how it goes. She’s very quick to accuse others of lying too - we hear “you’re/she’s/he’s telling a real lie!” multiple times a day. Maybe we can try a different approach to this as well. - Emily

JDaniel4's Mom March 30, 2021 at 6:31 am

I think stories about what really happen start early in children. Point out that they are fictional starts early for parents too.

busy kids=happy mom March 31, 2021 at 6:03 am

Hmm - I’m okay with my kids telling “stories” but not all out lies. We have not tolerated lying in our home. In fact, now that our kids are older we’ve even instituted a $10 for lies! Our feeling is that if they get away with the little things - they’re more likely going to try for bigger things later on.

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