10 Ways to Deal with Lying in Young Children
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Frustrated by a young child who just can't seem to keep her story straight? Don't worry: young children around preschool age are still in the process of learning how to tell the difference between lying and make-believe.
Due to where they are in terms of their brain development, their thinking is concrete, which means that they understand only what they can see in front of them and tend to think in black-and-white terms, rather than being able to make finer distinctions. Because their thinking tends to be so simple and straightforward, their understanding of morality is similar; they are concerned merely with avoiding getting in trouble, and not focused on more universal concepts of morality in the same way that adults are.
Young children do not have the memory capacity that older children or adults have, so instead of consciously lying, they may simply not remember all of the details of an occurrence, so they may leave out certain things, or add in what they think makes sense.
When considering how to correct young children who lie, adults needs to be aware that these children usually lie for different reasons than adults do; young children tend to lie either because they feel bad about what they have done and think that if they lie, they can make it so the event did not occur (what psychologists call, “magical thinking”), or because they wish to avoid punishment, without a real understanding of why lying is wrong. Some children are very creative, and they just need help learning how to express their imagination in a way that is not misleading to others. Some children realize that lying is the only way they can get attention, either because of exaggerated accomplishments or pains, or because of the trouble they get in when the lie is discovered.
The goal in dealing with the lying of young children should be not to punish them for lying, but to teach them the difference between pretending and lying, and to help them understand why it is important to tell the truth. Some ideas for working with young children who lie include:
- Make sure your child really understands the difference between pretending and lying. You will have to do so several times over the course of many months. Be specific and brief. If you think your child is lying, remind him that, “A lie is when you say something happened when it didn’t really happen. I need to you tell the truth, which is telling me about what really happened.” Give concrete examples of each every time.
- As young children generally do not fully grasp the concept of lying, punishment is not generally recommended as much as correcting and teaching the child. If you do see the same behavior occurring over and over, and feel that you must deliver consequences in order to stop it, try to make sure that the consequences are related to what the child has lied to cover up.
- Try to avoid situations where your child would enter into a pattern of lying by eliminating temptation. For example, if your child tends to handle and break fragile objects, and then lie about what happened, keep such objects out of your child’s reach.
- If you know your child has done something wrong, do not set up a situation that might encourage your child to lie by asking, “Did you take your sister’s bunny?” Instead, say, “I wonder where your sister’s bunny went. She is very upset that it is missing. Can you help me find it and make her feel better?” Then remind your child of how she is to treat the things that belong to others.
- Another way to handle when your child lies is to point out the parts of the story that are true, and then gently note which parts come from her imagination. Remind her that right now, you need her to tell you the true parts, and if she wants to use her imagination when she plays with her toys or draws a picture, that would be wonderful.
- As sometimes lying can be a bid for attention, try to look for situations when your child is being honest and give attention for that behavior, while ignoring obvious lies when you can.
- When you talk about lying with your child, make sure that you are teaching her why honesty is so important. Talk about why people need to have correct information to make informed and fair decisions, and why it is important for people to trust one another.
- Ask your librarian for stories about lying and its consequences. Read these stories with your child and talk about what happened to the characters. See if your child can identify lying as you go through the book.
- Let your child know that it is okay to make mistakes, as long as she admits them and tries to fix them. When she does tell you the truth about misbehavior, help her make up for the misdeed, but let her know that you are proud of her for telling the truth.
- Be aware of your own tendency to lie, even when lies that are told to spare the feelings of others. Young children do not have the capacity to tell the difference between a lie that is selfish or hurts others, and a lie that is meant to protect someone. Your children look to you as a role model, so if they hear you lying, they will copy this behavior, though not necessarily with the same intention.
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