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What I usually do is let their imagination run out and then, in the silent aftermath, offer a very to the point lesson. “Wow, you sure have a big idea in your head. What an imagination you have. The truth is that you told Mommy that Daddy said something he didn’t say. That is dangerous. Mommy needs to know what is really happening.”
The problem is that, in a three-year-old’s mind, his story is really happening! There is a commercial for some art supply where the child is walking in down a hall with drawn in the air flowers and houses and animals . . . they see these things. They believe these things! You can’t expect that, at three, much of what you say about this issue will be shown back to you in behavior. I would say that Liam was closer to five when he started to get the idea of tricking, and even now, at five, he’ll toy with saying untrue things and then say, “TRICKED YOU!”
Now, what you can do is make a big deal about how important the truth is by saying, ‘Thank you for being so honest.” Despite the whole words are magic and imagination thing, Liam was right there with what really happened. This is why, at this age, I do not forbid or in any way discourage tattling. It is your child coming to you to report the truth. If you discourage tattling and things like it, you are devaluing the truth telling, while the story telling and imagination are going to continue whether you like it or not. I don’t overreact to it, I just say, “Thank you for telling me the truth.”
I’ve also seen, with Liam, that by not discouraging tattling, and not encouraging it by overreacting or punishing, now he only comes to me when he needs my help, like someone is in danger or trying to hurt him.
So I very openly point out when something is truth and something is fantasy/imagination/untruth. I don’t use the word “lie,” except in teaching what a lie is. I would never accuse my 3- or 4-year-old of lying or of being a liar. At five, I will sometimes ask Liam if what he’s telling me is truth or untruth.
Through watching different shows and reading different stories, Liam has learned what a lie is. He will watch a child tell a lie and say, “He’s telling a lie!” We’ve talked about a trick being for fun but a lie being to get out of trouble or deceive someone. Since he doesn’t get into trouble, he doesn’t feel a need to lie. And when he does tell me a difficult truth, I always thank him for trusting me with the truth. I’ve told all my children that the truth is what I need so I can know how to respond to something.