A peanut butter trail led from the kitchen counter, down the hallway and stopped at 3-year-old Jessica's bedroom. At the trail's end sat Jessica, innocently playing with her dolls. Pieces of crust lay scattered on the rug and her face bore the telltale marks of a recently devoured snack. Evidence pointing to her guilt was everywhere. Remarkably, however, when Jessica was confronted?"Why did you get into the peanut butter without permission?"?she protested. "I didn't, Mommy! I promise!"
God takes lying seriously, so much so that he made the prohibition against giving "false testimony" the ninth commandment (Ex. 20:16). Maybe that's why our first inclination is to punish children when they lie. There is also the sense that lying is a personal transgression and we feel emotionally affronted. As a result, we tend to be heavy-handed in our response.
A better approach is to examine what triggered the behavior before doling out punishment. Is your child trying to avoid consequences? "A child who lies is either afraid of you, or she's 4," write the authors of The Mother's Almanac (Doubleday). Perhaps it's a little of both. Children get into mischief all the time; that's natural. What's unnatural is for them to admit it, especially when facing an irate parent. Paradoxically, our negative reaction often puts children on the defensive, which sets them up to lie.
Use the following tips for dealing with a preschooler who lies:
Stay even-tempered. Rather than yelling, "Who got dirt on the kitchen floor?" say, "I see that somebody knocked over this flower pot. Shall I get a broom so whoever did it can sweep it up?" This allows your child to take responsibility for her actions without fearing your anger.
Reward honesty. If your child admits he did the deed, praise him for telling the truth. Consider minimizing the consequence for the original infraction as a reward for honesty. When we show our children that we value truth-telling more than we value a clean floor, they learn early on that there is nothing to fear by telling the truth.
Honesty is one of the most important virtues we can instill in children. As parents, we can also help our children be honest by being truthful ourselves.
Analyze the statement. Is your child merely exaggerating the truth? "Most children don't begin to understand truth and falsehood until the age of 7, the age of reason," writes William Sears, M.D. Rather than automatically assuming your child is lying, try to jog his memory. For example, if 4-year-old Morgan boasts, "I ate all the candy at Sunday school today and nobody else got any," remind her that it's in her own best interest to tell the truth (remember the little boy who cried wolf?).
At the same time, look for the element of truth in the story. Fabrication may be normal, but parents of preschoolers should be aware that fantasy and reality often merge. Whenever possible, look beneath the surface of your children's "tall tales." They may be trying to convey something for which they lack the words or confidence to tell you in any other way.
Writer, educator, mother of three
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1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today Magazine.
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