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Imagination vs. Reality

When my twins, Drew and Claire, were 2, they got into the habit of ending their phone calls to me with loud kissing noises and the question "Did you get my kiss?"

"Yes," I'd say, making smacking sounds in return. "Did you get mine?"

At age 7 they're still telephoning kisses to me, and I'm starting to wonder: Do they actually think their kisses travel through the phone and plant themselves on my cheek? What do they truly believe? What do any kids think is real? And what should parents tell them?

One of the awesome things about being a parent is the constant mingling of real and pretend, the concrete and the imagined. It can be a blast to swoop a spoonful of mush through the air like an airplane or howl together at the moon like a wolf family. But when a child says she won't go downstairs because of the monster, does she really think there's a creature in the living room, and should we dismiss it as nonsense?

Figuring out the difference between real and pretend is one of the major tasks of childhood. While some understanding will evolve naturally as her brain grows, your child will need your help in four key areas:


Jackie Gundaker of Indianapolis, 3, was quick with a lie when she hit her friend: "It was an accident." When her 5-year-old sister, Carly, spilled her milk, she said, "I didn't do it." Mom Lisa wasn't fooled by either of them, of course, but in deciding how to respond to your child's lies, it's helpful to understand her relationship with the truth.

A lot of this depends on age. Because the frontal lobes of their brains are just developing, toddlers don't have the brain circuitry they need to delay gratification. Two- and 3-year-olds are focused on getting what they want, and don't think it's wrong to lie about having washed their hands as long as it gets them to the pretzels faster. "It's not a conscious effort on a three-year-old's part to mislead," says Stanford University developmental psychologist John Flavell, Ph.D.

Yet even though they lie a lot, toddlers are wildly unconvincing. This is because they haven't yet developed an understanding that people see the world from different perspectives. As far as your 2-year-old is concerned, if she says she didn't color the wall, it doesn't occur to her that you might look at the marker on the floor and the smudge of color on her hand and draw your own conclusion. And though she's trying to deceive, she doesn't really understand that it's wrong to do so.

By age 5, it's a different story. The child who says she didn't spill her milk is trying to deceive and knows it's wrong. Make it clear you expect her to tell the truth. (On the positive side, the ability to deceive improves the social graces of a 4- or 5-year-old. She's able to thank Grandma for a homemade sweater even if she thinks it looks weird -- this is called empathy.)

More deception busters:

Display the evidence. Hold up the broken toy or the muddy shoe and explain that you know what happened. But don't make too big a deal about lies told by a very young child. With older kids, it's safe to expect two or three denials before they finally admit to a lie.

Preempt the lie. Instead of giving your kids the temptation to lie by asking if they've brushed their teeth, say, "You didn't brush your teeth. Go brush." And "You drew on the wall" is less of a potential minefield for a 3-year-old than asking her about it.

Discourage exaggeration. A kindergartner in my son's class swore he'd cut off a boy's head in karate. My son told a friend he'd been playing wall ball since he was 3. Not true. Tell your child that her achievements don't need exaggeration and that friendships can't be based on lies -- friends are special people with whom we're extra honest.