Why Does my Toddler Lie?

It’s been happening for a while now.  Initially, I thought it was because Gavin had just muddled his facts.  There is no denying that Gavin seems to be making things up – little white lies, fictitious facts, but all harmless.

One morning, I made a sandwich for Gavin to eat before school.  He didn’t finish it so I did what I normally do when Gavin doesn’t finish his food – I ate the rest of it, but not before he ate about half of it.

A little later, as we were heading out the door, Ah Mah asked Gavin, “Did you eat your bread?”

To which Gavin replied, “No.  Mummy ate it.”

Well, technically, I did eat it, but it certainly sounds as though I ate the whole lot while he had nothing.

Yesterday, teacher R was away from school.  When I asked Gavin where she was, he replied, “Teacher R didn’t come to school.  She went kai kai.”

Just in case you don’t know, “kai kai” is Chinese for shopping.  My Chinese is not the best so I’m not sure if the usage is colloquial or if it is the actual word for it but it is what we use it to mean.

This morning, when we arrived at school, Gavin saw teacher R and blurted out, “You weren’t here yesterday.  You went kai kai with somebody.”

That was when the truth came out and teacher R explained that the reason why she didn’t come to school was because she was sick.

Yesterday evening, Gavin was playing near a table with the jar of his animal crackers on it.  He was holding his T-Rex and bashing it around when it accidentally collided with the jar of crackers and knocked it off the table.

Ordinarily, Gavin is quite truthful about owning up to his misdeeds.  This time when I asked him who did it, he replied, “The dinosaur did it.”

In some ways you could say it was T-Rex since it was T-Rex that collided with the jar of crackers even though it was Gavin who was controlling T-Rex.

So far there haven’t been any significant consequences of Gavin’s “half truths” and “white lies” however I had been wondering if this was just the start, if it would get worse, or if it was just a phase that would resolve itself.

Well, according to Baby Center, it appears to be a developmental phase that all toddlers go through because of an inability to differentiate between fact and fiction.

“Your toddler lies because at this age he’s not yet able to differentiate between reality and fantasy. Until he’s 3 or 4, your toddler won’t fully grasp the concept of lying, because he doesn’t yet understand the idea of an objective truth based in fact.”

There appears to be a few reasons why toddlers lie:

1. Overactive imagination.

I can’t think of an incident where Gavin’s imagination has overtaken the truth, but I’m sure there must have been some.  But this was the example that Baby Center gave: “if his books are in a jumbled pile on the floor instead of arranged neatly in his bookcase, he may say that he tripped and hit the bookcase, causing an avalanche of books, when he may have just pulled out a few and the rest followed by accident.”

2. Forgetfulness.

Toddlers are often so busy with things that they forget what happened earlier.  For instance, whenever I ask Gavin where he put a certain toy, he does not remember that he hid them under the chair and will claim that the toy is “lost”.

3. Magical Thinking.

The desire of an alternate reality because toddlers believe that saying something will make it so.  For instance, “let’s say your toddler yanks a toy out of his baby sister’s hand, causing her to burst into tears, then feels sorry he did it. So when you ask what happened, he says she dropped the toy herself because he wishes so much that that’s how it had happened that he comes to believe it.”

Although it is just a phase, it is important to address it at this stage before it gets out of hand.

Baby Center suggests the following tips:

  • Encourage honesty. Instead of coming down hard on him when he lies, thank your toddler when he’s being direct and tells the truth. You might say: “That’s great that you told me about the broken truck. Now I understand how it got that way.”
  • Avoid putting your child on the spot. Try not to question him about the details of a transgression. After all, in many cases it’s patently obvious; if he has chocolate all over his face, you know exactly what happened to his sister’s candy. Often we question young children because we want them to confess, but this can create a battle where there doesn’t need to be one.
  • Act on what you know. In a matter-of-fact way, say, “Gee, Justin, it’s not okay to take some of Becky’s candies. They’re hers and it upsets her to lose them. Let’s give her some of yours, okay?” By taking this tack, not only have you circumvented the “confess-you-are-lying” confrontation, but you’ve also led him through the process of reparation. In the long run, knowing how to make up is a more useful skill than knowing how to respond to an interrogation.
  • Model trust. Show your toddler that you trust him and he can trust you by always telling him the truth. Make it a priority to keep your word, and apologize profusely if you break a promise. He’ll learn more from your behavior than he ever could from your admonitions.

Parenting @ iVillage adds a few more:

  • Teach your child the value of honesty by giving appropriate consequences. Keep in mind that your job is to teach, not to punish, but do not stop there! Help your child take action to repair the lie.For example: Return items taken/stolen to their proper owner. Accompany your son to school to return toys taken. Support your son to verbalize his mistake and apologize for his actions. This reparative action may be all the consequence needed.
  • Do not reward lying by ignoring it. Allowing your child to “get his way,” or by engaging him in endless angry interactions about the lie won’t accomplish your goal. Instead, set limits and matter-of-factly enforce them when necessary.For example: Tell your son that you are interested in knowing if something is bothering him about brushing his teeth, but that lying is not an answer to whatever problem he may be having. Let him know you will help him if he tells you what is really going on, but require that he brush his teeth in your presence.
  • Do not berate or label your child negatively. Instead, make statements that communicate a belief in your child’s overall goodness, but label the behavior. Align yourself with your child, and against the detrimental behavior.For example: “I know you are not a liar. What is stopping you from telling the truth?” Or: “You are not a thief. Why did you take what was not yours?”
  • Create a safe family environment . This will allow for expression of a full range of feelings, however unpopular they may be. Children can then separate feelings from actions that are damaging.For example: If your son feels it is safe to express anger or sadness directly to you, he is less likely to cloak it in misbehavior or lies.
  • Let your child know that we are all tempted to take short cuts at times. Then point out the damaging effects that lying can have on relationships and self-esteem.For example: “Sometimes telling a lie or taking something that is not yours seems easy, but in the long run the consequences of this behavior causes others to distrust you. You end up feeling badly about yourself, too.”

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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