What to Do When Preschoolers Lie

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Everyone lies. But the way preschoolers lie is different from the way adults lie.

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Three- and 4-year-olds “live by a simple rule: Good people do good things,” says Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D., author of Parent & Child. “By lying, [a preschooler]is, in essence, protecting his ability to be loved by you.”

Older children know what a lie is but don’t consider its consequences. “[Children are] aware of the probable unpleasant consequences of [what they did]and are simply protecting themselves,” says Kutner.

What should you do if you suspect a preschooler is lying?

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* Give children alternatives to lying. For example, let them know that breaking a vase accidently won’t be treated the same as breaking it on purpose. Help them understand why lies aren’t necessary or helpful.

* Talk calmly. Focus on the child’s action-not the lie or the child. Don’t ask accusatory questions and don’t press for a confession. Just present the facts as you understand them. For children up to the age of 5, parents should just say, “I saw you do it, and that isn’t nice.” Then suggest an action that would’ve been better.

* Avoid harsh punishment. “[Harsh punishment] creates a fear of punishment, rather than an internalized belief in moral behavior,” says psychologist Paul Ekman (Why Kids Lie). Use a story such as The Boy Who Cried Wolf to help younger children realize the damage lying does. Use object lessons from the news for older children. Or talk about what the Bible says about lying (Proverbs 19:22).

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* Set an example. Admit your mistakes. When children see you handle mistakes, they’ll be more able to cope with problems. And avoid telling lies yourself.

Children as young as 4 can tell deliberate lies to get out of trouble, according to researchers. But the fear of parents’ disapproval discourages them from lying.

Ninety-two percent of 5-year-olds thought it was always wrong to tell a fib. But by the age of 11, only 28 percent said they “never told a lie,” according to research.

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