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Yes, All Toddlers Lie—But How Do You Stop It?

Photograph by Twenty20

One of the most frustrating behaviors parents have to deal with is their child being, shall we say, a little less than truthful. While lying becomes a larger issue as they grow up, children as young as toddler age can engage in stretching the truth. All parents can agree that lying is a bad thing, but how should they respond when their child tells their first lie?

Tall Toddler Tales

The Lies:

Toddlers tend to fib when you ask them questions. “Do you need a diaper change?” I’ll ask my daughter, knowing full well she’s riding on a full load. “Nope!” she happily responds. We’re working on potty training, so I ask her, “Do you need to use the potty?” Again, she chirps, “Nope!” I change her diaper and she promptly pees. “Honey, why did you lie to me?” I ask. She goes back to playing with her Trolls. Does she even know what lying is?

The Why:

Typical lies for the toddler set revolve around avoiding an activity they don’t want to do or gaining something for themselves. For example, my daughter probably doesn’t want to stop playing and have a diaper change or a potty break.

What to Do:

Don’t punish. Children at this age don’t understand what they’re doing is wrong. Try rephrasing things. Instead of “Who dumped out all these toys?” try “These toys got dumped out” and use that to begin the conversation. A lying 2-year-old is not morally damaged—just make your expectations for the truth as clear as you can. Fun fact: If your child is lying at age 2, they might actually have advanced brain development! Brock University psychologist Angela Evans says that "those children who are telling the lies are slightly more cognitively advanced.”

Just because your kids tell a fib or two, or spin a complicated yarn about ninjas and fairies, doesn't mean they lack moral guidance or will grow up to be criminals.

Preschool Fibbers

The Lies:

When I was little, I had a friend who told me that he had the Ninja Turtles living in his basement. I totally believed him. When I walked across the street to play at his house, I would ask him over and over again if we could go down and visit Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael. Each time, seemingly inexplicably, the Turtles would be off on a mission, fighting the evil Shredder. Kids ages 3 to 5 often spin tales like this: that 37 ninjas attacked the school bus on the way home, that they have an imaginary friend who does bad things, or that the teacher came to school in her underwear. They may also continue lying about doing something they weren’t supposed to do to avoid an unpleasant situation.

The Why:

Some of the same motivations apply as when they were younger: not wanting to get in trouble or to avoid a situation. However, kids at this age are just developing their ability to fantasize and their imaginations are in overdrive. It can be very hard for them to find the line between reality and fantasy. Children use fantasy to process new ideas or concepts they find unfamiliar or intimidating.

What to Do:

Try to frame your interactions positively. Most of the time, the fantastical types of lies that kids tell at this age are harmless. However, when they lie about something like breaking a lamp or pulling the cat’s tail, the behavior needs to be addressed. First of all, keep your cool. Then, state the house rules and explain what comes next. “In this house, we don’t throw our food on the floor when we don’t like it. Now, you’re going to get a rag and some soap and wipe up the mess.” Also, it’s important to avoid calling your child a liar. Instead, state your expectations in a positive manner: “In this house, we tell the truth.”

Though it’s incredibly frustrating for parents, it’s important to understand that kids lie for different reasons at different times in their development. Just because your kids tell a fib or two, or spin a complicated yarn about ninjas and fairies, doesn’t mean they lack moral guidance or will grow up to be criminals. Just use these phrases and keep the conversation open.

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