Your child and white lies

What do you do when your child – usually between the ages of 4 and 7 – suddenly starts telling lies? Sometimes this can be lies about who did something, or about what happened to them. Sometimes it might be outrageous lies about friends or family. To many parents this is a most unpleasant shock and it becomes difficult to know what to say, and how to deal with it. However a child, perhaps accustomed to hearing fiction or ‘white lies’, may be bewildered by your reaction.

Telling ‘stories’

If this is what your child does, don’t worry too much. He is not about to become a criminal, and he is not being deliberately manipulative. Nearly all children go through this phase when they are small. They are learning to distinguish fact from fiction, and developing their imaginations at the same time.

It is very hard for a young child to understand the difference between lying and fiction. If you read a story about the three little pigs, for instance, your child knows that pigs don’t really talk and build houses. To him, this is no different from pretending that something happened. It is a story, in his mind, when he tells you that there’s a tiger in your back yard. You know that, and can join in and play along. But it is also a story in your child’s mind when he says that someone else spilled the juice, or broke the plate. If you know that he was responsible, then it will seem like a lie, in your adult mind. To your child, however, it’s just another game of making up stories.

Distinguishing lies from stories

Of course, he needs to learn to distinguish lies from fiction, but this can take some time. Don’t be angry with him for telling lies when going through this phase, because he will simply become confused. Instead, you can ask, gently, ‘Did your baby sister REALLY do that, or were you pretending?’  If you make the distinction, and do not express anger, he may well respond with the truth.

Help him to know that when he is talking about real people and real incidents, it is important to know what really happened. Ask him if he would like it, if someone else claimed that he had broken something when he hadn’t really. He may not have thought about that. It may take some time for him to understand the implications of ‘making up stories’ that might have happened about people he knows, so be patient. Don’t over react or make a big deal about ‘lying’.

Fiction, stories and lies

Do make sure that you spend some time with your child explaining the difference between fiction and non-fiction. Tell him that it’s not a good idea to make up stories about friends or family, because some people might think his story is really true. Then each time your child forgets and says what you consider to be a white lie, try saying, ‘Remember that we don’t make up stories about real people. I need to know who really did this. Is it ‘pretend’ that this happened, or is it ‘real’?’

Don’t threaten – or give – punishments for lying. All they will do is force your child into more deception. He needs to know that parents and children should trust each other, and that he can admit to untruthfulness without fear of retribution.

Even a young child of three or four can understand clearly that Daddy, Grandma, and Mr Jones next door are real people, while characters in fiction books are ‘pretend’. The man who reads the news is a real person on television, the puppets in Sesame Street and the Teletubbies are pretend.

A slightly older child may want to know how you can ‘see’ pretend people on television: explain about dressing in costumes and using puppets. Your child’s teddy and lego people are real toys, but things they do and things they say are ‘pretend’. Don’t suggest that pretend play is any less valuable than real actions and games with real people, for young children can take their toys seriously, and become upset at the idea that they don’t exist, or that fantasy is wrong.

Be totally honest

It is also crucial that you are completely honest with your child, all the time. If he asks if Santa exists, tell him he is pretend. I told my son this when he was three, when he asked directly. He was relieved to know, and in later months often asked similar questions about people in books and on television. If you tell even small ‘white lies’ to your child then, when he learns the truth, he will stop trusting you.

Equally, don’t make a big deal of everything being either ‘truth’ or ‘lies’. This huge middle ground of ‘pretend’ is the opening to creativity, where imagination can be explored, and you can both enjoy games and stories which you know are not real.

By the age of about seven or eight, most children outgrow the tendency to make up stories that might hurt other people. If not, this may be the stage where you can explain more strongly that lying makes you unable to trust them, and could get someone unfairly into trouble. You could tell the story of the boy who cried ‘Wolf!’ when there was no wolf, and was then eaten by a real wolf because nobody trusted him.

Encourage truthfulness

But try not to become angry. Instead, show that you are disappointed, because you want to be able to trust your child. Some children with vivid imaginations do continue exaggerating or telling ‘white lies’ long after the stage when they can distinguish fact from fiction, and even sometimes convince themselves that their story is real, because their imagination is so strong. But so long as you stay calm, and do not threaten punishment, most children will admit – sooner or later – that they made something up.

When this happens, thank your child for being truthful and give him a big hug. Tell him he’s brave for telling you that he was wrong. Explain how you want to be able to trust everything he says, and that you hope he will trust everything you say. And then change the subject.

Further reading:

Parenting theories
Parenting books
ADD or highly spirited?
Jealous of the new baby?
Discipline – what is it?