Not all phases of child development are sweet and memorable. While some firsts, like first steps, first words, and first bite of oatmeal, are things parents want to cherish forever, there are other firsts that we’d probably rather forget, but are still part of growing up, nonetheless. First tantrum. First time out. First intentional lie.

We recently hit that last less-than-wonderful first with my older son, age 4. I walked into the kitchen to see that the cat’s food bowl, along with the new shampoo I’d just purchased and left on the counter, had gone missing. Since the only people in the house were me, my four year old, and my two year old, I asked, “Has anyone seen the cat food or my shampoo?” Crickets. Nada. I later found them carefully hidden under the couch. My son told me he’d put them there but somehow “forgot” to tell me. A few days later, I walked into my younger son’s room to find baby power sprinkled all over the changing table. Knowing that it was well out of reach of the two year old, I asked point-blank, “Did you make this mess?” hoping my older son would confess and apologize. Instead, he swore up and down that he had no idea how it had happened. I knew the time had come to have a chat about the truth and why it’s important.

Seriously, kid? What the heck?!

Seriously, kid? What the heck?!

When preschoolers lie, it’s very different from the lies of teenagers or even ten year olds. Their lies are an experiment. “What happens if make something up? If I pretend something else happened than what really did? Will it get me out of trouble? Make people laugh?” They may know they’re doing something they shouldn’t be by lying, but they feel that what they’ve really done is worse and will lead them to even worse trouble. For this reason, I think this stage of development is critical. Someday, when one of my sons is offered a chance to see the professor’s answer key in advance of a final exam (as I was in an undergraduate class!) I want him to value an honest “C” over an “A” that is not truly earned. Or perhaps even more importantly, I want him to know that if he calls me and comes clean about it, I will give him a ride home if he’s gotten into a tough situation in high school. The truth will always be a better option at our house.

However, teaching this lesson can be tricky. I don’t want to send the message that lying is no big deal, but I also don’t want to punish too harshly and make him simply come up with better lies to avoid getting into even more trouble. After a long discussion with our son, we came up with the following things our son now knows we will always expect when something goes wrong:

  1. Tell us what actually happened right away when we ask, or preferably, as soon as it happens
  2. Help us come up with a way to fix it
  3. Tell us how you’ll keep it from happening next time

When the “Baby Powder Incident of 2013” happened, I wanted to shout “Of course you did this! Who else would?! And now you’ve lied to me on top of making a huge mess! I’m furious!!” when he swore he didn’t do it. Instead, I said calmly but very seriously, “If you did this, I won’t be angry, but I will expect you to clean it all up immediately.” He told me he did it, he didn’t know why, but he was sorry. He then got the vacuum and got to work. He even offered to take his own money to buy new powder to replace the amount he’d dumped out.

If your preschooler is lying, know that you’re not alone. In fact, in their book Caring for Your Baby and Young Child, the American Academy of Pediatrics states that lying is very common among 3-5 year olds. In response to lies, parents should:

“…help [the child] understand that lying is the greater misdeed. Save your anger and punishment for times where she conceals the truth, and instead of accusing her when you suspect she’s done something wrong, say something like ‘This is broken. I wonder how it happened?’ If she confesses, remain calm and even-tempered, and make the punishment less severe than if she persisted in the lie.” (pg. 380)

Lying, like so many other things preschoolers may do, is about testing reactions and figuring the world out. While it can be frustrating or even enraging to realize your sweet, innocent child is purposely deceiving you, know that it’s an opportunity to teach him or her a valuable lesson about truthfulness and trust. In that way, it’s a lot bigger than walking, as far as milestones go!

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