How to deal with lying. Oh, it’s so hard! One day your little toddler is so innocent, calling your name and asking for a cracker. The next, they’re a guilty little preschooler, averting your gaze and twisting their toe in the dirt while they say, “I didn’t do it.” You know they did, and they’re not telling the truth. What do you do?
I admit I am still learning about this one. We have two preschoolers and one kindergartner in the house now, so any day is a prime candidate for about a dozen fibs. Some are big, some are small. Some are sly, some are cute. Some are averting blame, others are out of frustration. I’m a pretty black-and-white person but it almost seems each situation warrants its own solution. In particular, how do you discipline the lying without making them fear telling you the truth?
Well, it’s a tricky thing. And so far the good ol’ George Washington and The Cherry Tree story has not helped anybody in my house yet!
The first thing I have learned so far is not to take the lies too seriously. Or personally. Little kids DO know they are lying (contrary to popular literature on the subject), but they don’t have the moral context to understand the larger ramifications of why it’s wrong, who they could be hurting, or even what could come of it for them. This type of knowledge does not come until later, maybe 5 at the earliest. I would say that the longer or more complex the lie, the more moral understanding and therefore responsibility can be laid on the child. But the simple lies that 2-4 year olds tell are really just testing the waters. And they aren’t doing it because they’re awful people or because you’re an awful parent. They are just recognizing that something they did was a bad thing and hoping to avoid the consequences that may come.
Now here comes the tricky part. What are the consequences they are trying to avoid? Some consequences (like you yelling) can be mitigated and some (like giving back what they stole) can’t. But dealing with the lie depends on your understanding of what they’re trying to avoid. As much as possible, whatever it is, if you know that’s what they are afraid of, don’t do it when they tell the truth! If you have to do it, do it gently. That doesn’t mean you can’t punish them in some way (because most lies demand some sort of redemptive consequence). But the best way to deal with lies is by punishing lying more than the bad thing they did. Have a sliding scale: if they lie they get this (worse), if they tell the truth they get that (better).
For example, my five year old scribbled markers on his blanket today. I asked him if he did it and he told the truth… victory! So I thanked him for telling the truth and we talked about why that was a bad thing. He fortunately already knew why so when we imposed the consequence on him (sleeping without his blanket for awhile), he sensed the justice in it and was therefore not encouraged to lie. Had I yelled or scolded him, locked his markers away, or made World War III out of it, he would have been encouraged to lie next time. Previously he has lied to me on various occasions and I admit that I was probably a reinforcer–I tend to be so upset at what he’s done or the fact that he’s lying that I lose perspective (it’s not sex or drugs!). Scribbling on his quilt (which his grandfather gave us) without losing my cool took some effort. But luckily God reminded me that it was washable marker before I launched in😉 On other occasions, I have handed him over to Dad, who seems to keep his temper better than I do.
On the other hand, I have no problem dealing with my younger children who lie. I am used to the “I think he did it” when I ask “Who?,” and the “I don’t know” when they very well do, and the “I finished” when I know there’s some carrots left on the plate. In these cases, the best solution is to (calmly) tell the truth for them: “No, you didn’t finish. Don’t lie.” and lead them (calmly) back to do the redemptive action (sit back down at the table). Sometimes I even say it in first person for them… “You mean, ‘I did it Mommy’.” so they can hear the difference. If I’m lucky, they’ll echo me and I praise them for that. It’s as if my saying it for them somehow sheltered them from the fear of responsibility, or paved the way for them. And that’s a good thing. That’s their training wheels. The more they learn that it’s ok to admit the bad thing, and the terrible consequence did not reign down on them (but the right thing was enforced gently anyway), the more of a clean conscience they’re going to acquire. And if you can consistently lead them back to the thing they should do (eat those carrots) without losing your cool, the kids learn that fibbing does not pay off… they still have to do what they didn’t want to.
So does this make sense? Remember you want to teach several things:
1. Telling the truth is more important than what you did. (Lying is wrong).
2. If you did something wrong, it does have to be corrected. (Lying doesn’t work).
As soon as the little ones realize this (and it can take awhile), and they see how punishment fits the crime but can be handled gently if they confess, you will win them to the truth. And remember… always, always praise them for a confession, even if discipline must follow. Mercy triumphs over judgment.