When I was pregnant I started receiving weekly newsletters from Baby Center which provided weekly updates about the development that the fetus (and I) were going through. Since Little E was born, I have continued to receive those emails- weekly reminders of what my daughter is experiencing and how we, as parents, can learn to cope with-  and enjoy!- these new behaviors and skills. Something in this week’s email caught my eye. Having read about this issue in another book I decided to see what The Baby Center had to say. The topic was lying; “teach your child the virtues of honesty” the link promised. I was intrigued.
It seems that it’s not until age 3 or 4, that a child is capable of grasping the concept of truth — something that’s backed up by facts — and so, until that point,  she won’t understand lying either. “While she can be held responsible for her behavior, she can’t really be held responsible for lying about it since she doesn’t understand what lying is,” the site noted.

The article continued to describe how, during this year, imagination reigns and wishful thinking plays a starring role in the daily activity of toddlers. What happens in fantasies can happen in reality- and often does. That’s partly why your child will flat out deny having written on the wall in blue crayon even though she is standing there with the blue crayon in her hand- she’s lying partly out of wishful thinking (I wish I hadn’t done that) and partly out of fear (she sees that this makes you mad). “A confession is less important at this stage than just getting her to recognize the mistake she’s made,” the paragraph ends.

How exactly does one do that? The article provided some helpful tips, like setting a good example and rewarding the truth by acknowledging that telling the truth can be hard, that you appreciate their honesty, and then deal with situation itself (if you respond to her truth with anger and punishment, why would she tell the truth again?). One tip struck me as particularly important, and valuable for kids of all ages: avoid asking questions when you already know the answer as doing so can create a situation that just encourages your child to lie. Imagine, again, that you find your 2-year old standing in front of a masterpiece drawn on your kitchen wall. Our first reaction might be to turn to her and say “Did you do that!?” Your child will probably say NO even while clutching the crayon, which could serve to make you more angry. Jerry L. Wyckoff, a family therapist and co-author of Discipline Without Shouting or Spanking says “instead, try saying, ‘I’m sorry that happened! Now we’re going to learn about walls.” Then, get a bucket and sponge and show them how to clean. When you’re done, he says, she will ‘own’ that wall and perhaps be more likely to want to keep it clean…at least in the long run (in the short run, though, don’t be surprised if she does it again just so that she can clean it again, Wyckoff says. “Unlike parents, 2-year-olds find household chores an amusing change of pace!”). What’s important, he emphasizes, is that there’s been no anger over the lie and your child has learned responsibility.

What rings true here, especially when parenting a toddler, is that it is important to have a realistic expectation about what your child can and cannot do- they cannot tell the difference between truth and lie- and that it is the behavior you want to correct (i.e. the writing on walls) and not the fact that they told you something that was untrue to prevent you from being more angry with them. Toddlers are learning to explore the boundaries of their worlds, and their imaginations, and it’s important for us to find safe and acceptable ways for them to do this. I suspect that at some point, however, the lies become unacceptable too- perhaps all I need do is ask the parent of a teenager. Although, even a teenager’s brain is not fully matured (the prefrontal cortex, which has been implicated in planning complex cognitive behaviors, personality expression, decision making and moderating correct social behavior, of an 18 year old won’t be fully ‘functional’ for several years yet) so maybe there’s reason to cut them some slack too.

I don’t know. I bet by the time I have a teenager, I’ll reread this post and I’ll probably laugh at just how naive the me who wrote this post was.


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