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Ask An Expert / Children / Mama Drama

How do you handle lying with your kids?

Dear Mama Drama:

I have a question about the blurry line between encouraging active imaginations and lying.  Lying is absolutely not tolerated and we have taken great measures to make sure that we never lie to our four-year-old daughter so that she knows that she can always trust what we say. However, over the last few months she has begun telling “stories” that are untrue, either in an effort to get out of trouble or just to gauge our reaction.  

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For example, she threw a tantrum in the car after school and reverted to her old standby of communication when she is angry with me- grunting.  We worked through the tantrum and later that night I tried to talk to her about how important it is for us to use our words when we’re angry so that we can work on the problem together.  Her response was, “I was just playing a game….I was playing grunt, grunt, who likes to grunt? And you lost, I won because I’m good at grunting.”

Creative, yes, and of course her delivery was impeccable and I wanted to laugh. However, I did not feel that her response was an accurate reflection of what happened and tried to explain how that she was not telling the truth and when she doesn’t tell the truth it is lying.

To me, always telling the truth is not a negotiable point, but am I overreacting? Where do we draw the line between imagination and untruth?

~Worried About Overreacting

Dear Worried:

Lying is one of those issues that is a hot button for many parents. Being clear about telling the truth helps to foster that trusting and honest relationship you are trying to create with your daughter. Your commitment to always being honest with her is a great foundation.

That said, developmentally preschoolers are trying to figure out the difference between fact and fiction. Playing with storytelling is one way of testing out how it all works. When a child has gotten a positive response from the stories, she may tell more to get that response again – such as when you note your daughter is trying to gauge your reaction.

If it is a harmless silly story, feel free to play along with her and then end the conversation by saying something like, “Wouldn’t it be fun if that were really true. You have a great imagination!” This validates her imaginative skills, but also lets her know that you know this is fiction.

Common reasons children lie are because they want to avoid getting into trouble, they wish they had not done what they have, they engage in magical thinking that if I say it did not happen then it didn’t, and to save face in an uncomfortable situation. In the case of the grunting game, your daughter may have been trying to save face and deflect attention from the difficult feelings the situation produced. Admitting that she threw a tantrum may have felt uncomfortable to her and she may have been worried that she would get in trouble. Research shows that the desire to please adults is so strong in children that it often overrides the importance of telling the truth.

Using humor to deflect the situation is a great tactic, but it certainly presents a challenge for you as a parent. You can use the same type of statement as noted above to let her know you know this is a story and to avoid the loss of face that she may be fearing. Often it is enough to let your child know you are aware this is fiction in a gentle and light-hearted way without forcing her to admit it.

It can be easy to fall into power struggles and to overreact in response to lying. Taking a moment to view the situation from your child’s perspective can often help you respond with empathy and in a way that reinforces your beliefs about honesty. Using humor yourself can help to keep the situation lighter and allow your daughter the space to tell the truth.

Learning the value of honesty and trustworthiness is an important life lesson. Know that you and your daughter will have many opportunities to practice and clarify this as she grows.

How do you handle lying with your children?

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