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Lies, Truths, and Your Preschooler

Has your preschooler been telling tall tales? Help your child learn to appreciate honesty.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Preschoolers (aged 3-5) are learning to grasp the line between reality and fantasy. Telling a fib or tall tale is not an unusual way to explore this boundary at this age. Parents are often hardwired to react hotly to what they see as a lie. But this may not always be the best way to handle the situation.

Pediatrician Tanya Remer Altmann, author of Mommy Calls: Dr. Tanya Answers Parents' Top 101 Questions About Babies and Toddlers, says that when a child's 3, parents often will say, "'Gosh, my child is lying. I don't know what to do.' But it's a fuzzy line between what's real and what's in a child's imagination."

Let's say that your 3-year-old spilled milk on the floor. You ask, "Who spilled it?" and your child says, "Not me." It's not that your child is lying, Altmann says. She may wish she didn't spill it, or if the spill took place an hour ago, she might not even remember spilling it.

Pediatric psychologist Mark Bowers says anyone under age 5 is too young to understand what a lie is. They don't have the same cognitive capacity as a kindergarten-age kid who begins to learn the difference between right and wrong.

"You don't have a future criminal on your hands because your child's not 'fessing up to spilling the milk in the kitchen," Bowers says.

Laying Down the Ground Rules

If you catch your child drawing on the walls, you may be tempted to confront her: "Are you the one who did this?" Chances are she'll say "no" because she doesn't want to make you mad or get in trouble.

It's better to state what the rule is and offer a solution, Bowers says. For example, "We have a rule in this house that we only draw on paper. So why don't we get some soap and you can help Daddy clean it up."

To avoid accusations, he advocates a Columbo approach, or playing dumb. Within your child's earshot, you can say: "Oh, I wonder how this milk got spilled? It would really be nice if somebody could help me clean it up."

After your kid comes over and helps you, give him a high five for helping out.

"These are teaching opportunities to show your child what they should do in the future," Altmann says. "Unless it's really serious, stay away from punishment and turn it into a learning opportunity."

Superheroes, Disneyland, and Tall Tales

Creativity is at a high point from age 3 to 5, Bowers says.

Imaginary play is part of a child's natural growth and development. You start to see imaginary friends, superhero fantasies, wishful thinking, and talk about places your child has never been, like Disneyland. You can help nurture your child's imagination while teaching him or her the importance of honesty.

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