My husband and I have had a hard time coming up with a way to get the boys to tell the truth. I walked out to find dirt all over the interior of my car, and neither of my sons would confess to doing it. What should I do?
Focus on the first issue, not the lie.
To use your example, there was dirt on the hood of the car. Instead of setting the boys up to lie, set them up for success by stating the facts you know: “There is dirt on the car.” Then, offer the solution: “It needs to be cleaned up.” Give both boys a broom, hose, rag (whatever).
That way, there would be no lie and you’d have a clean car. Most cases of kids’ lying occurs when the parents could have made a different choice. This is one of my big reasons for not being a big supporter of logical consequences. They really are imposed on young children and get you caught up in the punitive thinking mind traps.
Since, in my house, no one gets in trouble, it doesn’t matter who did what. If no one is willing to own up and I didn’t see it, we all clean it up together (or they do, depending on what it is).
My children started encouraging each other to not tell me things that has happened. I would hear one child say to the other, “Don’t tell her. She’ll get upset.” I kept telling them that I need to know what’s happening so that I can take care of it – even if it means I’m upset. This is all developmentally normal. I’m just grateful that, with GBD, I’m not creating a dynamic where my kids become more adept at lying to avoid trouble. Usually when I hear my oldest asking someone not to tell, it’s because he doesn’t want me to be upset, not because he’s worried what I’ll do to him. I think this is something that, if you walk that fine line between setting the standard of honesty, and not freaking out when they don’t meet the standard, you get through it with pretty honest kids. The thing I try to ask myself is, “Does it matter who did it?” If the answer is no, then I don’t bother asking.
Also, I think this goes hand in hand with the issue of tattling. At least that’s the dynamic I saw with my children. Tattling is children coming and telling you the truth about something they know will upset you. If we stop them from tattling, then they learn to not tell you things that will upset you. I’ve decided to make tattling a non-issue. I simply thank the child for telling me the truth and handle or not handle the issue as I choose. If they think I should do something more I let them know I’m the mommy and am taking care of it.
Children are not even developmentally able to lie (that is, with the intent to deceive) until at least the age of seven. They have to have developed the logical skills to understand that they are deceiving. They can tell untruths before then. They can know it’s an untruth. But the more mature understanding necessary to intend to deceive, and willfully deceive, simply isn’t developed enough to call it lying. Before then, it’s more about words being magic – if they say it, their words make it so. They think, If mom will be upset if I say, “Yes,” then I will say, “No,” so that she doesn’t get upset. Saying no makes it not have happened. They want to please and they want to make things the way they are in their head. This is not the same as lying, which is why children don’t understand being punished for lying at these early ages.
What I usually do is let their imagination run out and then, in the silent aftermath, point to the 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, he 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 that by not discouraging tattling, and not encouraging it by overreacting or punishing, eventually they only come to me when he needs my help, like someone is in danger or trying to hurt them.
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 if what they are telling me is truth or untruth (or truth the way they wish it was).
Through watching different shows and reading different stories, my children learned what a lie is. They would 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 they don’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.