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Ask Dr. K: Teaching a young child that it’s not okay to lie

DEAR DOCTOR K: Lately my 4-year-old has started lying to me. She’ll say she didn’t break a toy, or push her brother, when I know she did. How should I handle this?

DEAR READER: Almost all preschoolers will lie at one time or another — and it’s clear they know they’re lying, and that they shouldn’t be doing that. For example, when one child hits another and is challenged about it, here’s the usual sequence of lies: “I didn’t do it”; “I didn’t mean it”; “It didn’t hurt anyway!”

Each lie admits to the preceding lie. It’s as if the child realizes there’s no way he will get away with the lie, so his only hope is to dismiss the importance of the transgression.

Some preschoolers may not yet realize that it is wrong to lie. Now, at age 4, is the time to teach your child that lying is not acceptable. Doing so at a young age will help mold your child’s behavior as she gets older.

To encourage truthfulness when you suspect wrongdoing, be upfront but not confrontational as you question your child. For example, ask an open-ended question like, “How did your walls get crayon all over them?” rather than a closed-ended one like, “Did you scribble all over your walls?”

If your child has told a lie, keep your response short and to the point. Be sure to tell her first that you believe she has lied, and because of that, consequences will follow. If your child denies drawing on her walls, for example, you might say, “I know that you drew on your walls, as I saw you do it earlier today. It is never OK to lie to me. You won’t be able to play with your crayons for the rest of the day.” Do not ignore these seemingly small or harmless lies.

It is always helpful to praise your preschooler for being good, too. Compliment her when she tells the truth. Remind her: “I’m glad you told the truth about what happened. When you tell me the truth, I can trust you, and that makes me happy.”

Remember that children learn right from wrong by watching and listening to the adults around them, especially their parents. If they see you telling a little white lie, they will conclude that lying is acceptable. “Do as I say, not as I do” is never an effective strategy, especially when dealing with young children.

A colleague of mine at Harvard Health Publications has a daughter. We’ll call her Cleo, short for a certain very self-confident Egyptian queen. Like all kids, Cleo sometimes does things she knows she shouldn’t. And when challenged, she sometimes lies about it. But more often, she is refreshingly honest ... and witty. Here’s a recent gem, as related by her mom:

Mom: “Cleo! You know you’re not supposed to throw a ball in the living room. Why on earth did you do that?”

Cleo: “I think it’s because I’m a kid, Mom.”



Dr. Anthony L. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.

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