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Toddler Lying

By Supriya Bhatia, M.D.

Toddler Language

​Research suggests that children develop the ability to lie between ages 2 and 4. As a parent, it is important to understand the milestones that are the building blocks for lying to effectively teach your child the importance of honesty.

Why Toddlers Lie

At the toddler stage in a child's development, it can be difficult for him or her to tell the difference between make believe and reality.

When children of this age tell a lie, they don't necessarily mean to deceive. Lying is their way of constructing the reality that they wish was true. They think that if they say something happened a certain way, that's what happened, so they do not have to worry about being in trouble.

The Psychology of a Toddler's Lie

Children don't just begin telling lies as soon as they start talking. Telling a lie requires a certain level of cognitive development that children begin to achieve when they reach toddler age.

To tell a lie, a toddler must understand that he or she can have different thoughts than the adults surrounding him or her. From this discovery, skills such as independence will grow.

In addition, lying requires understanding that the person who the child is lying to has unique thoughts and a different perspective than the child who is weaving the story. This is why parents find it is easy to catch a young toddler in a lie. The toddler may claim that it was a baby sibling who broke the lamp, even though the baby cannot reach the lamp and the parent who the toddler is lying to is well aware of that fact. As toddlers age, their lies will become more believable because they learn how to adjust their stories to satisfy the perspective of their listeners.

What to Do When You Catch Your Toddler Lying

The first thing to do when you catch your toddler in a lie is to remind yourself that your child is not lying to deceive or hurt you or anyone around him or her. In the mind of a toddler, creating an alternate reality is the best way to handle the situation.

To teach the importance of honesty, try the following tactics:

  • Talk about the difference between make believe and reality.
  • When something has happened (for example a plate is broken), start with explaining that you'll be pleased if you know the truth. At this age, toddlers like to make those around them happy, so knowing they will not be punished and that they can make you happy by telling the truth makes them more likely to do so. When your child follows through and tells the truth, remember to praise him or her for being honest.
  • Share a story with a message about truthfulness. Some sources suggest that the best story to teach honesty is the tale of George Washington and the Cherry Tree because it shows the positive consequences of telling the truth, as opposed to the negative consequences for lying (as shown in the story The Boy who Cried Wolf).
  • Model honesty in your actions. Chances are, most parents tell white lies on a daily basis and don't realize they're doing it – or that their child is watching. Instead of lying to get your child or your friend to do something for you, be honest. Children are like sponges, so sometimes the best way to teach is simply through actions.