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Setting Limits: Lying

Parents often worry when their young children don't tell the truth, concerned that this behaviour somehow reflects on their child's character. Relax! Preschoolers are notorious for "stretching the truth." They are not being defiant, they are not being bad - but they are being preschoolers. And they will gradually grow out of this stage once they come to understand the difference between fantasy and reality, and begin to develop a sense of right and wrong. As a parent, it's important to see lies for what they are, and to treat them not as signs of trouble, but rather as opportunities to teach. Telling the truth is something that children gradually learn over the years, not something they know how to do from birth.

Here are some "teaching moments" that you can use to encourage your child to tell the truth.

  • Whenever possible, help your child understand the difference between truth and fantasy. For example, "I can see that you can make up great stories. We should write them down and make a book out of them."

  • Show your child that you understand that some lies are wishes. If your child says that he didn't break the window, when you know he did, gently acknowledge "I know that you wish it didn't happen, and I'm sure that you didn't mean to break the window, but you did break it."

  • Focus on finding a solution instead of simply laying blame. "Now that the window is broken, what are we going to do about it?"

  • Explain why telling the truth is important to you. "When people tell the truth, it helps us to trust them." Ask your child how she would feel if someone told her something that wasn't true. Stating family values and explaining the reasons for them helps children come to adopt these values over time.

  • Praise truth telling. Notice the times when your child does tell the truth, especially when you know it must have been difficult for her to do so, and let her know how pleased you are that she was honest. Children at this age desperately want to please their parents, and lies are often told to avoid upsetting their parents. If your child learns that truth pleases you more than the broken vase annoys you, the truth will win out.

  • Finally, try to set a good example. That 'little white lie' you told when the phone rang and you whispered "Tell him I'm not here," can seem awfully confusing to a young child who has just been told by you that lying is wrong.

Remember, helping children to be truthful is something that will happen over time, not all at once. So, be patient. Take it in stride when he lies, and treat each new situation as an opportunity to teach your child in a calm and constructive manner.

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