Storytelling, fibs, stretching the truth or telling a lie? Teach your children the difference

Caregivers can help preschoolers learn the difference between fact and fiction.

Children don't lie to be bad; they are acting their age. Photo credit: Pixabay.

Children don't lie to be bad; they are acting their age. Photo credit: Pixabay.

Most young children have an unclear sense of difference between fact and fiction. Toddlers up to age 3 generally have difficulty recognizing the difference between the truth and a lie. From ages 3-5 preschoolers start to learn the difference between what is real and what is fantasy; lying at this age is quite common. Children don’t lie to be bad; they are acting their age.

Preschoolers will lie for a variety of reasons. They may be afraid of being punished or they may have gotten carried away with telling a story. Children sometimes lie to protect someone else, such as out of fear of losing a parent’s approval, or they are just “wishful thinking.” Often a child is looking for attention. Parents and caregivers can get angry or upset with children when they don’t tell the truth because they know how important it is to be truthful. What can a parent do?

Michigan State University Extension suggests that there are many ways to build the character trait of trustworthiness in young children.

  • Model a good example. Children get confused about the difference between truth and lies when they overhear mom telling someone on the phone that dad is not at home, when they can see him sitting in the family room. Even “white lies” can confuse children about being honest. If you call in sick to work because you want to go shopping, your child will think it’s ok to fake an illness to get out of a chore or pre-school. Make honesty the best policy in all of your actions.
  • Talk about honesty. Children’s books and movies can help you explore this topic with pre-school age children. The age-old story of Pinocchio, or a more recent book, Harriet and the Garden, by Nancy Carlson are great ways to open a conversation on the difference between telling the truth and telling a lie, and the consequences that may be involved. Talk about what happened and what the characters could have done instead. Be creative with your child by using dolls or puppets. Act out a character who gets into trouble for stretching the truth as in the fable The Little Boy who Cried Wolf.
  • Tell stories. Talk with your child about times when you were tempted to tell a lie or what happened when you didn’t tell the truth as a child. Children love to hear stories about when their parent got into trouble as a child. Create a teachable moment!
  • Teach the Difference between fact and fiction. Help your child understand that there is a difference. Use phrases like, “that’s quite a story you made-up.” Discuss shows that your children watch and make it clear that some (the news) are real and others (cartoons) are pretend. Watch television and movies with your child so you can discuss the difference.

When your child lies, make it very clear that you know that the child is not telling the truth. “That’s quite a story, now why don’t you tell me what really happened.” Keep your cool and RELAX. You may need a time-out to collect yourself before addressing the issue. Ask yourself what your child is feeling and try to see the situation from the child’s perspective.

Don’t put your child in a position to lie again by asking them if they did something that you already know they did, state the fact – “I see that you broke your brother’s toy.” Combine kindness with directness. Point out and praise your child when she is truthful. “Thank you for telling me the whole story.” Remember that story-telling and fibbing in preschoolers is normal. Approach each new situation as an opportunity to teach your child. Teaching positive character traits takes time!

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