Understandably, this might be a cause for serious concern among most Catholic parents. We know the value of honesty and trust, and we want to raise our kids to be honest and trustworthy. That said, it’s important that we remember that lying at this age isn’t the same thing as lying at age 6 or 7 and, if you handle “lying” at this stage appropriately, you might just be able to prevent your kid from becoming a professional con artist by the Second Grade.
LYING AND TODDLERS– 3 THINGS PARENTS NEED 2 KNOW
There are three things you need to keep in mind about lying and little ones. First, 2-3 year olds aren’t anywhere near the age of reason. Developmental psychologists tell us that children this age don’t connect actions with consequences. Secondly, and more importantly for this conversation, kids this age often don’t know the differences between fantasy and reality. They tend to think that if they think or feel something to be true, it is true. For instance, using the example in a study, the child who looked at the toy knows he wasn’t supposed to and feels bad for disobeying. He doesn’t want it to be true that he was disobedient, so, in his mind, it isn’t a lie if he says he didn’t look at it. The third reason a lie isn’t really a lie at this age is that kids have very little control over their fight, flight, or freeze response–the reaction that keeps us from getting eaten by a sabre tooth tiger. The thing is, the underdeveloped brain of the toddler/young child really isn’t picky about the nature of the threat. If it FEELS threatened then IS a serious threat–whether it is in reality or not.
PUTTING INTO PRACTICE
All this is important to know so that parents can resist accidentally encouraging lying in young kids. For instance, imagine your rule is “no snacks before dinner” but your 3 year old sees a cookie and eats it when he thinks you’re not looking. Meanwhile, you happenned to come around the corner at the last moment and you caught your child cookie-handed and crumb-faced. If you say, “Johnny! Did you eat that cookie?” What do you think will happen based on the information I shared above?
If you guessed that the child will stare you right in the face and, with the biggest eyes in the world, say, “(chew, chew) No, mommy (chew, gulp)!”
Granted, that looks like a lie. But here is what is going on in your little one’s head.
1. “I shouldn’t eat the cookie, but I was hungry and it was right there, but I didn’t want to make mommy mad by eating it so therefore I didn’t really eat it.”
2. “Maybe mommy didn’t see me eat it, and if she didn’t see it and I didn’t want to do it, maybe it didn’t really happen.”
I know it looks crazy to a grown-up, but this really is what’s going on in your little one’s head. He is being deceptive, but he really is not intending to lie.
But obviously, this isn’t acceptable, so how do you handle this? Simple. Don’t lead them into temptation. Don’t ask questions you already know the answers to.
AND NOW, A PARENTAL DO-OVER
Let’s replay the scene. You child eats the cookie. You see him do it. This time you say, “Johnny, you know our rule is ‘no snacks before dinner.’ Because you chose to have your dessert first, I’m afraid there will be no sweets for the rest of the night. Do you understand?”
Child: Yes mommy.
Mom: Okay, cookie-face. C’mere and let’s clean you up.
Short and sweet. The rule is reinforced and the consequence backs it up. The child has no idea how you knew, but he learns that, somehow, you know everything so there’s no point trying to get one past you. Lying–even this relatively benevolent form–is largely extinguished before it gets started.
If you can be gentle, matter-of-fact, and let the consequences (instead of your anger and yelling) do the talking, you can do a lot to cooperate with the brain God gave your child and help your kid develop the virtue of honesty from the earliest age. All you have to do is show your kids the same mercy we ask of our Heavenly Father in the Lord’s Prayer and lead them not into temptation.
For more great parenting tips for raising (almost) perfect kids, check out Parenting with Grace: The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.