When Jennifer Kolari went downstairs to find her brand new Indian rosewood dining table covered in permanent marker, she was pretty sure she knew who the perp was. She called her preschooler into the room and asked her if she knew anything about the mess. Her daughter looked back at her and answered: “It wasn’t me, Mommy.”
It was a pretty typical lie for a kid her age, which is something Kolari knows, because as well as being a parent of three, she is also a child therapist and author of Connected Parenting: How To Raise A Great Kid. But for a lot of parents, seeing their little angels turn into tiny truth stretchers can be stressful and confusing. Is it normal? Should you be worried? And how do you set your kid on the path to being a (mostly) honest adult? (Because, let’s face it, fibbing serves a purpose.)
The truth is that all kids lie—most long before they have an intellectual understanding of what lying is. And lying may even be a sign of high intelligence. Kids who lie in their toddler and preschool years tend to have a better handle on executive functions (those faculties that enable us to manage impulses and focus), and some studies suggest early lying is a predictor of future success—so much for playing by the rules. For all kids, it is a significant stage of brain development, as young minds learn to separate fact from fiction, develop autonomy and accountability, and eventually understand why honesty is important.
Here's what works way better than forcing your kid to say sorryMost often, lying starts after two years of age, as language skills are developing, but kids still have a blurred understanding of fantasy versus reality. I remember when I was little, my younger sister came home from nursery school one day and told us all that her class had been on a trip to China (presumably between the hours of 9 a.m. and noon). Early childhood educator Emily Wesson says it’s possible my sister understood she was making up a story but didn’t understand she was expressing it as fact. So “we went to China” could mean she was starting to understand that people go on trips or that China is a place. It’s unlikely she was actively trying to deceive anyone. Wesson says in those early years, educators avoid calling kids to task about lying, but instead will ask questions and give them an opportunity to self-correct. Any sort of fib-shaming, she explains, runs counter to their primary goal: “Our job is to build up confident, secure little people who feel comfortable expressing themselves.”
As kids become more verbal and begin to make new friends and have more experiences outside the home, most parents are keen (read: desperate) for intel. You want your mini-me to recount the preschool day the way your favourite gossip blogger breaks down a celebrity split. “[But] that’s not the way a kid’s mind is working at that stage,” says Wesson. Open-ended questions may still be tricky for them to answer, and sometimes lies are a kid’s way of getting out of a situation they find irritating. To avoid this, Wesson says curious parents should stick to specific, limited questions. (“Did you play in the sandbox? Who did you sit with at lunch?”) Also accept that three-year-olds aren’t great at reflection.
The question of how to handle lying becomes more fraught when kids get a little older and start lying to get out of trouble for something they did (scribbling all over a dining room table) or something they didn’t do (handwashing is a big one). In these cases, there is intent and some understanding of what truth is. But even still, parents and caregivers should avoid treating their kid like a witness on the stand. “When you accuse a child of lying, their amygdala (the brain’s fear centre) lights up, and they go into defence mode,” says Kolari. Picture stomping feet, crossed arms and a total inability to participate in a conversation, since their frontal lobe (the part of the brain that handles logic and impulse control) is being overwhelmed. At this point, the goal is to de-escalate and then to provide a calm and safe environment for the truth to emerge. Kolari recommends mirroring, which is basically repeating the lie back and asking your kid if that sounds right. If you’re not getting anywhere, give them time alone to think about it. “The goal is to get your kid in contact with that yucky feeling in their tummy that comes with lying, so they can then feel the positive release that accompanies coming clean.”
That means consequences are only appropriate in cases when they don’t fess up. It’s why Kolari had to grin and bear it when her daughter admitted to Markergate (her table was ruined, but her daughter’s moral compass was intact).
Parents will sometimes ask Kolari, “Well, what if my kid realizes that truth telling is a licence to misbehave?” She notes that most young people are not that diabolical. In the long term, the vast majority of kids will move out of the lying phase because they understand the upside of honesty.