Truth or Consequences: Your Preschooler and Lying

Learn how to tell if your preschooler is lying, and how to respond if he is.

Truth or Consequences: Your Preschooler and Lying


Harshly punishing lies themselves may make your child more likely to lie again. If you spank your child for lying it will probably only lead to more lies in the future—in an attempt to avoid another spanking.

When you first realize that your preschooler is lying to you, you'll almost certainly find it disturbing. You may feel angry, saddened, disappointed, hurt, or offended-or all of these emotions at the same time. But don't punish yourself with thoughts that you've done something wrong. You haven't failed in your attempts to teach proper moral behavior. Indeed, you've just begun teaching moral behavior. Preschoolers don't yet have a firm sense of moral behavior. All preschoolers lie. It's your job to catch those lies, correct them, and in so doing, provide moral instruction.

Before responding in any way, make sure your child knows the difference between fantasy and reality. After all, if she doesn't realize that she's telling a lie, is it really a lie at all? If you determine that she did know the truth but lied anyway, then try to respond calmly.

First, try to find out why your child lied. Chances are it wasn't out of sheer ill will. In most cases, preschoolers tell cover-up lies for one of three reasons:

  • They fear punishment for their misbehavior.
  • They're afraid that their parents won't love them anymore.
  • They feel overwhelmed by guilt.

Examine the way you usually respond when your child confesses to some misbehavior—or when you find out about it on your own. Do you have a tendency to get angry? Do you hurl accusations? Do you go ballistic? Or do you voice your disapproval calmly but firmly? If you throw a fit whenever your preschooler honestly tells you that she did something wrong (especially if she had been reluctant to tell you in the first place), then why would she ever willingly admit to something again?

Also take a look at the way you impose disciplinary measures. Are your punishments too harsh? Why does your child want so much to avoid them? Certainly you need to correct misbehavior, but consider whether you may perhaps punish your preschooler too severely. Punishments for any misbehavior should be consistent and reasonable. Are yours?

Do you ever withdraw from your child or refuse to speak to her until she apologizes or atones for some transgression? If so, your child probably fears that you won't love her anymore if she behaves badly. Whenever you punish your child for lying or any other misbehavior, be sure to provide reassurance as well as discipline. Remind your child repeatedly that you love her even when you disapprove of her behavior or feel angry with or disappointed in her. Don't say, even in jest, "I don't love you anymore."

When you confront your child with one of her lies, frame it as a moral issue, a question of right and wrong. The most effective means of cutting down on lies is to explain clearly and forcefully to your child why dishonesty is wrong. Let your preschooler know the importance of truth to you, why it matters.

Explain the consequences of lying, too. If your child lies a lot, you won't know when she is really telling you something important and truthful. Tell stories or read books about lies and their consequences. (The classic story is, of course, "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," which teaches that habitual liars can't be believed about anything.)

Most importantly, model honesty yourself. Tell the truth (not necessarily the whole truth, merely what is appropriate to her age) to your child and to others. The more your preschooler sees you modeling honesty, the more she will want to be honest, too.

If your child observes you doing something dishonest it will confuse her. Even overhearing you do something as apparently innocuous as telling a "little white lie" or convincing a ticket seller that your child is under three in order to get into the museum for free will cause your preschooler to doubt your commitment to honesty. In the case of a white lie, explain to your child your reasons for lying (tact, sociability, and a desire to avoid hurting another person's feelings). In the case of buying tickets, pay your fair share. After all, if you lie whenever it's convenient, then why shouldn't your child?

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