My Son Is Turning Into A Liar!

Dear Mamas,

My 2.5 year-old twins amaze me most days. Being a first time mom, i’m not sure when to expect certain behaviors, like telling a little white lie, or doing something clever and sneaky. Two recent examples:

1.  I told the boys that if they ate most of their dinner, they could each have a special treat since they had earned it during the day and all throughout dinner. Anyhow, one of them starting taking all his food and placing it on his brothers plate. He looked up at me and said: “I get my treat now mommy, I’m sharing!”

2. Since my boys are not yet potty trained they don’t have any business in the bathroom. During one of our play dates, one of them went into the bathroom and pushed his little friend out and said: “No, you stay there. I have to use the potty.” (totally my verbiage, so I think he may have been role playing?) Then he decided to take all the TP off the roll while he was playing in the bathroom. He knows he is not allowed to play in there. He knows not to take the TP off the roll like that.

Did he know he was lying to his friend and how do I handle these types of situations?

Thanks, Andi

Hi Andi,

I love your stories! Your boys sound like they are curious, imaginative, creative and totally normal. And in case you didn’t know, ALL children lie. But why they lie and how you handle it changes quite a bit depending on their age. For your guys, at 2 1/2, the answer is pretty simple. It’s normal and to be expected and punishment is not the way to go. But that’s not to say you should just ignore it.

The big thing to understand is that before age 3 to 3 1/2, the vast majority of children may not even be aware that they are lying. They do not understand that it is wrong, and may believe that what they are telling you is the truth. They are still unclear on the concept of fantasy vs. reality and to complicate things further, they may literally have forgotten that they did something earlier that they are being questioned about now.

It’s not until around 5 1/2 or 6 that a child begins to develop a conscience and a more consistent understanding of the difference between fantasy and reality. And it’s not until then that he can begin to fully grasp the concept that lying is wrong.

Interestingly, early lying (before age 3) is linked to intelligence, which if you think about it, makes perfect sense. In order to lie, the child has to be able to recognize the truth (what really happened), then be able to come up with another plausible scenario that will work to cover his tracks (the lie), and then be able to sell you the story. This is very complicated stuff!

The first type of lie to show up in the toddler/preschool set is the self-serving kind – one that gets him something he wants (that treat after dinner) or helps him avoid something he doesn’t want (being in trouble). The thing to remember is that they really don’t understand that the lie is WRONG. They don’t see a problem with what they are saying. They are basically just problem-solving.

This is what was going on in both of the examples you gave. In your first example, about dinner, your son wanted that treat. He may have reasoned that “dinner gone” equals “nothing left on the plate” which equals “getting the treat.”

So putting his food on his brother’s plate was a way to get what he wanted. The fact that he came up with “I’m sharing” is priceless. He knows you value sharing and may have thought that particular behavior might get him what he wanted too, especially if you have rewarded him for it in the past.

Calling him bad, or accusing him of cheating or punishing him at this point would be counter productive and inappropriate. He didn’t lie, he just got creative and came up with a clever solution for his desire to get that treat.

If he had said, “Look Mommy. My food is all gone,” you could have said something like, “Oh that’s funny, I see that your food is on your brother’s plate. Let’s put it back on yours so you can make sure it ends up in your tummy, then you can have your dessert.”

But given that he wasn’t trying to fool you, you could have said, “Oh that’s nice to share but your body needs that food to grow big and strong. Let’s put it back on your plate so you can eat it up and get your dessert.”

It’s important not to set him up to lie by asking in a disapproving or angry tone of voice, “Did you put your food on your brother’s plate?” The tone alone will trigger the lie, not because he understands it was wrong but because he doesn’t want to get in trouble and he can tell that you are angry. And then he may come to rely on lying as a way to avoid conflict.

It’s also important to remember that rewards work only if they are immediate at this age and they must be for one specific action like “I have a treat if you put all 6 of these toys in the toy box,” or “…if you stay in your stroller until we get home.” Their attention span is very short and if they must wait all day and do lots of different things to get the reward, it’s really an impossible task for them and they may end up frustrated and angry.

The second example is also about getting something he wants. In this case, it’s access to that mysterious room that’s off-limits to him. He heard what you say when you want to get in there and used it himself to have some fun. He is probably very curious about what goes on in there! You could say something like, “Oh no! All the toilet paper got pulled off the role. That’s not good because the bathroom is not a place to play and the toilet paper is not a toy. Now let’s clean it up.”

The other type of lie that appears now is the “tall tale.” This type of lie comes out of their very vivid imaginations and shows up as either a story they made up or a gross exaggeration of one that really happened. Then again, they might be telling a story about what they wish were true instead of what actually is true. It might  be about him being a superhero or seeing a monster in the backyard.

The best strategy with this kind of fib is to see it for what it is and either go along with it, “Oh you’re superman. What kind of super powers do you have?” or low-key it and move on, “So Daddy drank all of your milk and ate all of your cookies did he? Hmm. That’s interesting.”

It’s best to avoid confrontation and to not force a confession with children this age for all the reasons we’ve explored. But, it’s also wise to begin to teach the basics about telling the truth and why it’s wrong. They need for you to begin to introduce the idea that telling the truth has value, that it is something that makes you happy.

Several studies found that the threat of punishment did not decrease a child’s tendency to lie. In fact, it often just pushed them to become better liars. On the other hand, teaching the worth of honesty, “I’m proud and happy that you told the truth,” or, “I’m sad and disappointed that you lied to me” was very effective in reducing it.

Researchers studying lying in children found that when they read the book “George Washington and the Cherry Tree” to the 6 and 7 year old participants before they went into the testing situation there were 43% fewer lies told. The last line of that book is, “George, I’m glad you chopped down the cherry tree. Hearing you tell the truth instead of a lie is better than if I had a thousand cherry trees.” Hmmm. Might want to pick up that book.

And once again, we come back to that old familiar song about modeling the behaviors you want to see in your children. Be very careful about falling into a habit of telling white lies yourself and try to set a tone of truthfulness in your home, coming from the top. Remember, they have very big ears.

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.


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One response to “My Son Is Turning Into A Liar!”

  1. taqah

    super advice. I’m always tempted to go the “are you lying?” route which is so counter productive. I will be using these.

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