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Lying, Ages 1 to 3

Why does my toddler fib?

Until she's 3 or 4, your child won't be able to reliably distinguish between reality and fantasy. That makes it impossible for her to grasp the concepts of lying and telling the truth. What seem like fibs are really the result of:

  • An active imagination: Doesn't everyone have fish that swim in the bathtub with them? Or a princess under their bed?
  • Forgetfulness: How can an active 2-year-old remember who really had the Teletubby first? She just knows she wants it back now. And when you scold your child for the crayon marks on the wall and she says she didn't do it, she's not lying, she's simply forgotten she did it -- or wishes she hadn't.
  • The angel syndrome: A child who recognizes that her parents think she can do no wrong starts to believe it herself: "Mommy and Daddy love me 'cause I'm so good. A good girl wouldn't spill her milk like that. What milk? I don't see any spilled milk!"

My child makes up stories and has imaginary friends. Is this okay?

Yes, you can relax and enjoy listening to your child's tall tales, full of outlandish characters doing impossible things. Highly embroidered fantasies are generally harmless and a normal part of development. After all, you read fairy tales to your child. Why shouldn't she offer some of her own?

The same goes for imaginary friends, says child psychologist T. Berry Brazelton in his book Touchpoints -- not only are they normal, they're signs that your child has a well-developed imagination. Even when a child blames a misdeed on her "friend," there's nothing to worry about. From an emotional standpoint, imaginary friends serve an important purpose: "They give a child a safe way to find out who she wants to be."

How do I teach my child to be honest?

Though it's not worth punishing your toddler when she embellishes the truth, you can gently nurture her instinct to be truthful in ways that make sense at this age, including:

  • Encourage truth-telling. Instead of getting mad at your child's misdeed, thank her for telling you about it. If you yell, she's unlikely to feel that honesty pays off.
  • Don't accuse. Couch your comments so they invite confession, not denial: "I wonder how those crayons got all over the living room carpet? I wish someone would help me pick them up."
  • Don't overburden your child. Don't weigh your child down with too many expectations or rules. She won't understand them or be able to follow them, and she may feel compelled to lie to avoid your disappointment.
  • Build trust. Let your child know that you trust her and that you can be trusted. Nothing is more important than making honesty your best policy. It's a parent's job to be a role model of trust.

Don't:

  • Tell your child that the shot at the doctor's office won't hurt
  • Expect your child to understand the subtleties of little white lies

Do:

  • Keep your word
  • Explain and apologize if you've broken a promise
  • Praise your child for telling the truth

References

Brazelton, T. Berry, MD, and Joshua D. Sparrow, MD. Touchpoints Birth to Three: Your Child's Emotional and Behavioral Development. 2006. Da Capo Press.

American Academy of Pediatrics. Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age Five. 2009. Bantam Books.

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