'Truth' or Consequences, Preschool Style: How To Deal With A Child That's Telling Lies

Dear Dr. Heather,

I have a 3-year-old son who has been fibbing about his behavior at daycare. What can I do to make him understand that this is wrong? When we find out that he has told us a lie, we sit down and discuss the behavior, and give him a consequence of not being able to do something he likes, even if it's a day later.  Am I going about this all wrong?


Melissa from Texas

Hi Melissa,

I know it's rough with this age, but at 3, 4, or even 5, your little guy still doesn't REALLY know the difference between "truth" and "a lie". He's just not cognitively capable of understanding it. He's not 100% sure about the difference between dreams, TV shows, his own imagination, and "reality". That's why imaginary friends and the Easter Bunny get such good play with the preschool crowd.  So asking him about "the truth" is kind of like speaking a foreign language.

I asked my just-turned-five-year-old if the Backyardigans are real. He said "yes". (DUH, Mommy!)

"But are they made up? Like a story?"

"Yeah, a cartoon."

"So are they a lie?"

"Ummm.... I don't know!"  he said.

Your son may PRETEND he understands, because he sees it's important to you, but don't be fooled. Kids this age have yet to come to the stage of Concrete Operations, when they will start to understand the difference between the "real" truth, and what is false or imaginary.

So, make your decisions based on what YOU know to be the truth of his behavior, not what he "admits" to. If he protests that "it's not true", you can say, "Well, I know you WISH it wasn't true, but it was, so here's the consequence." Or one I used tonight, when my daughter said she already washed her hands, but I knew she hadn't: "I know you WANT to be done washing your hands, but I didn't see the scrubbing. Let's try it again, please." Don't make him feel like a "liar" or a criminal for telling stories, but let him know that YOU as his parent DO know the truth -- and will work on helping him understand what that means.

The most important issue here is to help your son think through those tough situations at school, to help him make better decisions next time. Ask him about what happened, in a curious way, without getting upset. "You got mad at the other kid and ripped his paper? How come? What happened next? Maybe next time, try and ask him to stop touching your paper, so you won't feel like you have to rip his picture."

Punishing him the day after the infraction is not likely to work, and more likely to cause a power struggle to erupt. He won't connect the punishment with the action that long after the fact. You're better off letting his teacher give the immediate consequence, if it's necessary, and then talking it over later with him.


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink