I was at home alone with my three-year-old son, Jeremy, when I noticed that a strip of wallpaper in the bathroom had been partially peeled off — right at three-year-old height. Our discussion went like this:
“Jeremy, what happened to the wallpaper in the bathroom?”
“Matthew did it!” (Matthew is his brother, who was 10 years old at the time).
“Matthew is at school. He’s not even here.”
“He ran home really, really fast and peeled off the paper, and then ran back to school really, really fast.”
That’s become one of our family stories: Whenever someone was about to get into trouble for doing something they weren’t supposed to, they’d joke that “Matthew ran home really, really fast…”
Lying is one thing, but parents naturally worry when their children falsely accuse a sibling or friend as well. Why do preschoolers blame siblings, friends and sometimes even pets for their own misbehaviours?
“The younger the child, the more likely that he may be unclear as to what is truth and what is fantasy or his imagination,” explains Christine Ateah, an associate professor of nursing at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg and the co-author of Human Development: A Life-Span View. “If a parent is angry about something, the young child may be reacting to the parent’s anger and wishing he had not done the deed.” It’s not a big step in a young preschooler’s mind from ‘I wish Matthew had done it, not me’ to ‘Yeah, Matthew did it.’
Older preschoolers may deliberately try to avoid punishment or their parents’ anger. Being able to tell lies is actually a sign that the child has reached a new developmental stage: Younger children think that you know everything they know, so lying is pointless. It’s only when they understand that your perceptions and knowledge can be different from theirs that they begin to grasp the idea that they could tell you something that isn’t true and you might believe it.
Still, you don’t actually want to celebrate lying. “When young children are blaming others and not telling the truth,” Ateah says, “it’s a good opportunity to discuss why telling the truth is important.” She offers these tips for handling blame shifting:
• Say, “I’m sure you wish that it wasn’t you who did this, and I’ll help you clean it up now.” This acknowledges that you know the child did it, but understand his desire for the situation to be otherwise, and makes it clear that he still has to help resolve the problem.
• Ask him not only to solve the problem (for example, clean up the mess or help mom fix the wallpaper), but to apologize to the person he blamed unfairly — assuming the other person knows that he’s been accused.
• Remind him that you have a rule about being truthful, and discuss what things are true using less stressful examples: “Right now, it is raining. Is that true?” (Yes.) “If I said it was snowing, would that be true?” (No.)
• Remember that children learn by observing others. If you make a mistake, make a point of accepting responsibility for it.
And should I have been worried that Jeremy was on the road to a life of not accepting responsibility for his actions? “Children often try out behaviours they have figured out themselves or observed in others, and it’s better not to overreact,” says Ateah. “Age-appropriate explanations and consistent responses are the key to helping children learn not to blame others.”