“Help! My sweet, nice, lovely 3-year-old has begun lying to me. What should I do?”

First thing you should do is feel pleased, maybe even proud that your child is learning how to lie.

“Whaaat? You’ve got to be kidding”

No, I’m serious. Lying is a milestone in cognitive development. It indicates 3 things:

1. Your child understands what you’re thinking. (i.e. Mom doesn’t like it when I eat a cookie before dinner.)

2. Your child knows the rules and understands what is likely to happen if she breaks them. (i.e. Mom will yell at me.)

3. Your child has the ability to create an answer that’s different from the truth. (i.e. No, I didn’t eat the cookie; the dog must have eaten it.).

“But I can’t be pleased about her lying. She doesn’t even show any remorse when I catch her in the lie. I’d hate it if she grew up to be a liar or to have no moral compass. Don’t I have to drill morality into her while she’s young, so she understands it from the get-go?”

Slow down. A young child’s lies are based on logic, creativity and fun – not morality. If your 3-year-old son lies about brushing his teeth, he thinks it makes a lot of sense. If Dad believes him, then he won’t have to do something he doesn’t want to do.

If your 3-year-old daughter insists she had a peanut and jelly sandwich (no, not peanut butter, but a big giant peanut - so big she could hardly bite it), she is not lying. She is exercising her creativity and having a bit of fun with you in the process.

At some point, of course, parents need to teach their children that they shouldn’t lie. But don’t expect kids to get the concept in its entirety. For kids, lying is a tricky, contradictory notion – even though parents tend to present it as a black and white matter.

Learning about the “rights” and “wrongs” of lying takes time.

First, kids have to learn and appreciate the “pro-social” lie that is typically encouraged by parents. (“Even if you don’t like it, it’s nice to tell Grandma you like the toy she bought you.")

Second, kids must deal with the lies they hear you tell (“I don’t want to take the call. Tell him I’m not home.”)

Third, kids need to discriminate between manipulative lies (those that can cause great harm) and little white ones (those that cause no harm.)

Fourth, kids need to know that telling a lie to take unfair advantage of a situation is different morally from telling a lie to protect yourself.

Fifth, kids need to differentiate between an honest or careless mistake and a manipulative lie.

And sixth, they need to appreciate the difference in character development between a person who tells a lie on occasion from a person who lies indiscriminately.

So parents, if you think that your parenting skills are not up to par because your child tells a lie on occasion, relax. All kids lie. Indeed, a kid who always has to tell the truth – and all details of the truth – has a greater problem than a child who understands the complex nature of lies, and can differentiate between social lies, white lies, malicious lies and lying indiscriminately.

Copyright 2008

Linda Sapadin, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice who specializes in helping people enrich their lives, enhance their relationships and overcome self-defeating patterns of behavior. For comments or questions, contact her at lsapadin@drsapadin.com

Author's Bio: 

Linda Sapadin, Ph.D., psychologist, author, and motivational speaker, is known for her sharp insights and exceptional ability to provide timely yet timeless advice. Her specialty is helping people build competence, overcome procrastination, master fear and vanquish self-defeating patterns of emotions and behavior.

Dr. Sapadin has had extensive media experience, appearing on the Today Show, National Public Radio, Voice of America and a host of other TV and radio programs. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, USA Today, Newsday, The Washington Post, Prevention, Redbook, Men’s Health, and many other publications.

Dr. Sapadin has been an invited speaker to the Smithsonian, the American Psychological Association, and many other business and educational organizations. She is the author of PsychWisdom, a weekly advice column published online. To subscribe, visit www.PsychWisdom.com.

Books Published by Dr. Sapadin

-Now I Get It!: Totally Sensational Advice for Living and Loving is a collection of 62 of her inspiring, empowering and entertaining columns. (Outskirts Press, 2007, also published in Australia, New Zealand, China, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia)

-Master Your Fears: How to Triumph Over Your Worries and Get On With Your Life© (John Wiley, 2004, also published in Korean)

-It’s About Time! The 6 Styles of Procrastination and How to Overcome Them© (Viking/Penguin, 1996, also published in Japanese) with Jack Maguire

-Beat Procrastination and Make the Grade: The 6 Styles of Procrastination and How Students Can Overcome Them© (Penguin, 1999) with Jack Maguire