One of the questions I am asked most often about parenting young children is what to do when they lie.
Occasionally the question comes from a parent of a 9 or 10 year old but most often the children are 6 or younger. I realize that lying is a very real thing and it’s a sin. I have to be careful when discussing this issue because every so often someone will hear what I say on this and think that I’m minimizing what God makes very clear in Scripture. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Godly parents are concerned about the presence of anything appearing to be sin in the life of their child. Whether we blame a flaw in our child or a lacking in our parenting once we identify this sin we set about to figure out where the root is and pull it out.
What many don’t realize is that a two year old saying they didn’t eat the cookie when you find them with chocolate in the corner of their mouth is not a child lying.
If you believe that it is then you may spend several years fearing that your child has lying lips that are hated by God and that you are failing in your job as a parent. While living with that fear you will miss out on a lot of fun you could have with your child.
So if your 2 year old isn’t lying about the cookie what are they doing? They are entering the words as magic stage and the more you learn about it the better you will be able to teach and enjoy your child while they are in this stage. Two year olds are becoming able to do things on their own and they are proud to do them. They are also eager to please their parents and very concerned when they fail to please them. When a toddler perceives that they have displeased you they will seek to make things right and they truly believe that their words have power. Words are magic to them. When they ask for things, they get them. When you tell a story they experience it. And when your 2 year old says they didn’t eat the cookie they believe they have undone the act. With their words they have fixed the problem and mommy can now be pleased.
There is a reason that fairy tales are so popular with very young children. Disney realizes this and has capitalized on it. Fairy tales create a story of fantasy with archetypal characters representing things like good and evil, good character and bad. In the context of these fantasy stories can be introduced lessons about morality, relationship, right and wrong, natural consequences . . . the sky is the limit. To young children these stories are real, not fantasy. As they replay the stories they become the characters. And even outside of these fairy tale stories to watch a young child play is to watch them create a reality for themselves and anyone caught up in it. Some parents don’t allow their children exposure to Disney films; some don’t allow fairy tales; some try to forbid all fantasy play. No matter what you restrict you can’t skip this stage and you can’t require a child not believe their words are magic. And if a child really believes their words are making things so then they are not lying. They aren’t trying to deceive you into thinking they didn’t do something if they really believe that their words made it so it never happened.
If the child is firmly in this stage how can a parent teach honesty? Thankfully the words as magic stage is ripe with opportunities to teach all sorts of moral and godly character lessons . . . including honesty. One of my favorite approaches to character training is to create fairy tales or fantasy stories that contain characters very similar to my own children, who have quite conveniently done something very similar to what they have done. As we develop the story we address the issue and teach the proper response and the dangers of an improper one. For example, let’s imagine that a 4 year old has gotten frustrated and hit his 2 year old sister. I might take them into the Comfort Corner and sit for a few minutes while reflecting their feelings (most likely the 2yo sister got into the 4yo’s things and possibly messed up the tower they were building with their legos). That is frustrating and that is upsetting and being sad and even angry is a normal feeling under the circumstances. To acknowledge and validate this is not the same as saying the way the child acted in their anger and frustration is acceptable. So once the child is calm I might say I’m going to tell them a story . . .
Once upon a time there was a little boy who was four years old. He was a builder of tall towers and he was very proud of the towers that he would build. He knew that his towers provided homes for little people and sometimes soldiers had to use his towers to fight for the good guys to win. They all appreciated that the little boy took time to build his towers and the world was right and good. One day the little boy had a sister and when his sister was 2 she started being the destroyer of towers. She didn’t realize the destruction she was doing but she loved to see the towers fall over. Every time a tower fell she squealed with delight. But every time a tower fell over some little people lost their home or some soldiers wouldn’t be able to win their fight for good. This really upset the little boy. He had worked so hard to build these towers and when his sister knocked them over he felt very big feelings. He was frustrated, he was angry, he was sad, and he was mad. Sometimes he would try to hold those feelings inside but they were so big that his body couldn’t hold them in. When that happened they would erupt out of him like a big volcano and they would fly all around the room. Usually they would knock over his little sister. Sometimes when that happened the little boy felt bad; sometimes he was glad it happened.
Usually by this point in the story my four year old would be verbalizing his affirmation and telling me what was right or altering the story. For example, he might correct the feelings that the little boy had, or he might insist he always felt bad when the sister was knocked over or that he was always glad. I adjust and alter the story as this information is shared so that the child more firmly relates to the little boy and what has happened. But because I have not identified him as the little boy it’s okay to listen—I sometimes refer to these sort of teaching moments as going in the side door. And back to our story . . .
When the little boy would knock over his little sister with his big feelings his mommy would get very upset. She understood how hard he worked on his towers and she was sad that they were knocked over, but she wondered why the little boy didn’t use his words. He knew how to say things like, “Sister, stay away from my towers. Find something else to play with.” And he knew how to say, “MOMMY! Sister is getting into my stuff.” Even if he couldn’t think of his other words he knew the very powerful word, “HELP!” And mommy was already ready to come help. When he didn’t use his words and his sister got hurt then his mommy would feel frustrated. Sometimes she might say words that she would feel bad about and then she would really understand how her little boy felt. Even big people sometimes don’t respond correctly. But how could this little boy have reacted when his towers were knocked over?
And at that moment I invite the child into the process as we move into problem solving solutions for next time. This serves two purposes. First, it helps me to understand how much they have matured in this process and how well they are ready to do with finding new solutions and second, it helps me to find out what solutions they already know and where to focus my energies in helping them put into practice what they have already learned. After this part of the story we go on . . .
Now that the little boy knew what to do next time the mommy reminded him of what he needed to do this time. Because he had done something that hurt his sister he needed to make things right with her. It’s not okay to hurt someone and not make amends. So the little boy went to his sister and said, “I’m sorry I hurt you.” And offered a hug to make things right. After they hugged and she forgave him they knew everything would be okay.
Coming back out of the story I would ask my child, “Are you ready to do what you need to do?” And prompt them as necessary to make amends with their sister. Effective discipline has taken place and now the child knows what to do next time. Even though they may forget, and may need more stories, this is the process of discipline. Teaching, teaching, teaching.
This same approach can be used with a situation where a child speaks untruth. The story may be about a little girl who ate a cookie after her mommy told her not to and when the mommy saw her and got upset the little girl felt bad about it and wanted to undo it. She tried to use her words to put the cookie back in the cookie jar. The mommy understood that the little girl felt bad but she also knew that the cookie was still in her daughter’s tummy. The little girl knew too. The story could introduce ways to make amends for not doing what mommy said and a plan could be made for the little girl in the story to be more successful at following rules next time.
In addition to these wonderful stories (these stories can also be called Social Stories and are an invaluable resource for helping autistic children learn how to behave when in new social situations) it is important when dealing with the issue of honesty to delve into the world of nuances in the use of language that as adults we too often take for granted. There is not just truth and lie. There are jokes, pranks, and tricks; there is sarcasm, irony, and exaggeration. As children mature they will need to learn to navigate all of these subtleties. But we started with truth and untruth.
I’ve been asked why I use the word “untruth” instead of “lie”. Lie is such a heavy word. It implies the intent to deceive and it’s assigning a very negative intent to a young child. My children learn about lies, but long after they begin to separate truth from untruth. I teach my very young children, “God’s Word is always truth, mommy always tells you the truth, and truth means it really is that way.” To contrast that I teach them, “Untruth means you say something and it’s not really that way for real.” One question that arises is how does fantasy play fit into this. I take a unique approach to this because I believe that fantasy play is fun and valuable for children but I also don’t want to ever have my children think that I lied to them about anything—not even Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. We treat these fantasy characters the same way we do Buzz and Woody and Nintendo’s Mario who I assure you my young children believe are real not through anything that I do or say about them. As my children begin to understand truth and untruth they start to ask questions that show they are wrapping their minds around these ideas. Eventually the question comes, “Is ____ real?” Fill in the blank—it could be Santa, Buzz, or Mario. My answer begins with this very important question, “Do you want the truth? Or the truth the way you wish it was?” My answer honors their parameters. I will never forget when my oldest asked me about Spiderman. “Spiderman is real, isn’t he, Mom?” “Do you want the truth, or the truth the way you wish it was?” “The truth!” “Actually, no. He’s a . . .” “NOOOOO I want the truth the way I wish it was!” “Then, yes, sweetie! Spiderman is real and he’s a superhero!” “I knew it! He’s awesome.” And I got to hear all about how awesome he was.
If the 2yo who ate the cookie after being told not to was my child I would do a few specific things. First, I’ve learned not to ask questions of my children when I already know the answer. So instead of asking if he ate the cookie I would say, “You ate the cookie. Mommy said not to eat the cookie and you did anyway.” If they argued with me or tried to deny it I would state very honestly that I did not ask and I see that they ate the cookie. And I would then focus us on how the child could make amends. Perhaps the cookies were for after dinner and I would tell him that because he ate his cookie now he chose to eat his dessert early. Now there was not a cookie for him after dinner. When he was upset after dinner I would reflect and validate his feelings and without throwing in guilt I would talk about how next time they could wait and eat the cookie when everyone else was eating theirs. I might talk about how wonderful it is to do things at the proper time or, if my child was really upset, I might stop talking and let the lesson teach itself.
If I did ask a child if they did something because I didn’t know for sure, even if I had a strong belief about the situation, I might seek to make sure of their answer by asking them, “Is that the truth about how it happened? Or the truth the way you wish it was?” Even young children can understand the difference and will often confess that what they are saying is the truth the way they wish it was. We then move together to talking about what really happened and I encourage them to be honest with me. One thing that helps to encourage this is when I can keep my cool and exercise self control in the face of frustration. Losing my temper over something will teach my children that I’m not really a safe person to be honest with. In those moments I think of Jack Nicholson’s character yelling at Tom Cruise in “A Few Good Men”, “You can’t handle the truth!” The more my children understand that I can handle the truth—any truth—the safer they feel being honest and the less likely they are to lie to save my feelings or protect me from what really happened.
Sometimes it’s not desirable that a child be too honest—at least not out loud. “That person smells.” “He is old.” “This food is yucky.” At those moments we may wish that our children would speak the truth the way we wish it was. This can be a confusing stage for children because parents want them to be truthful but these things are truth to them—even if they are arbitrary truth. The key to handling these situations is to really introduce people’s feelings and the idea of opinions. Your opinion is your truth; my opinion is my truth. What helps me during this stage is that most people understand that little children are observing and learning to understand their world and not always shy about blurting out what they observe. My oldest would sit in restaurants and if someone had a hamburger or steak delivered to their table he would yell out, “That person is eating a dead animal!” I would immediately shh him and tell him that, “Yes. That is what he is eating. It’s called a hamburger and people don’t usually like to be reminded that they are eating a dead animal when they are eating their food. You can see that he is eating meat but you do not need to tell him or anyone else. If you need to tell me you can get my attention and whisper it in my ear.” If my children during this stage would say, “Mommy, I want to tell you something!” I would try to remember to ask, “Is it something you can say out loud or should you whisper it in mommy’s ear?” If they weren’t sure we took the safe route and went for the whisper.
Eventually my children start to learn about jokes and we play around at that for awhile. Inevitably this is followed by learning about tricks. I’m very clear with my children that jokes and tricks are only successful if everyone is having fun and laughing. It’s not a joke if it’s at someone else’s expense—that’s just mean. It’s not a trick if someone gets hurt on their body or in their feelings. And we work out the kinks in those areas of language. During this stage they always try out the untruth that, when caught, they assure me was, “Only joking.” Rather than getting angry I teach—and this is where we move into the difference between the truth and a lie! Because they are intentionally telling an untruth and covering up with the excuse of joking it’s time to really make sure they know what a lie is. A lie is when you tell someone something that isn’t true and you do it to intentionally deceive them and protect yourself. With my children this has happened around the ages of 5 to 6. And this is when I know my child is moving out of the words as magic stage.
As children move out of the words of magic stage they begin to realize that the power words have is not about creating a fantasy land or making the unreal real, but the magic words really have is to communicate our thoughts to one another, to convey who we are and what we believe to the world, and to motivate change. It’s so important that the thoughts we convey, growing out of what we believe, and the change we seek to motivate in the world be rooted in truth. Ideally it will be rooted in God’s Truth. This is evidence of a godly character growing in my children and I have not been disappointed with any of my children who are out of this “words as magic” stage. Because they do not get in trouble there is no reason to fear the truth and because I am working with them to successfully navigate these years and their pitfalls they know I’m on their team and when they aren’t sure of the truth or how to express it they come to me and ask.