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Truth & Consequences

At breakfast one morning, then 4-year-old Stephen Cardone, of Stamford, CT, told his mother an amazing story about his previous day's camp activities. While his counselors watched, he said, he removed his swimming bubble, jumped off the edge of the pool, and swam underwater all the way to the other side.

His mom knew that, as precocious as he was, Stephen could not have performed such an aquatic feat. In fact, she thought as she stood in the kitchen looking at her angelic son, he's been telling a lot of tall tales lately.

Kids lie. There's no doubt about it. And there's nothing unusual about it either: Child-development experts say that lying is as much a part of growing up as losing teeth or learning to share.

From flights of fancy to plays for power, kids fib for a number of reasons. "Like adults, children often lie to get out of trouble or because they want their own way," says Don Fleming, Ph.D., author of How to Stop the Battle With Your Child.

Where your child is developmentally will determine the kinds of lies you're likely to hear, and how you should respond to them. As they get older and gain some independence, most children outgrow the behavior, provided they have proper role models and gentle guidance toward truthfulness.

Andrea Atkins's last feature for Parenting was "The 10 Trickiest Questions Kids Ask  -- and How to Answer Them."


Kids have vivid imaginations and lack the ability to tell fact from fantasy. When Stephen Cardone told his mother about his epic swim, he was likely describing something he longs to do. "It's an expression of a fantasy  -- swimming across the pool is something he wants to do, or something he saw another child do. He may believe it himself, which is why it's not really a lie," says Stephen Herman, M.D., a child psychiatrist in Danbury, CT. "Fantasy is fun, and it's only a problem if it takes over."

So parents who "catch" their toddler or preschooler spinning tall tales need to understand that it's part of the development of intellect, and not a purposeful attempt to deceive. You might respond by saying, "Is that one of your great stories or did that really happen?"

"Preschoolers need to sort out the difference between fantasy and reality," says Elaine McEwan, author of I Didn't Do It: Dealing With Dishonesty. "There's make-believe fun that's truly fantasy. There are also made-up stories that could be true, such as a child saying, 'My brother hit me.' And there's fantasy that's really wishful thinking."

Eventually, says Lee Haller, M.D., a child psychiatrist in Potomac, MD, "kids begin to find out what 'truth' means through a process of exploring." It's no doubt part of that process that leads a 2-year-old to blame Curious George or an imaginary friend for things he knows he did that he shouldn't have  -- leaving a juice box behind the couch, spilling milk on the table, and other misdemeanors. Your child may know that what he's done is naughty, and feel fearful of your reaction to it. "The child is thinking, 'I don't know how Mommy or Daddy is going to feel about my being bad,'" says Fleming. "'So I'll bring up this other person in order to get out of trouble.'"

How you respond can do a lot to help your preschooler sort fact from fiction. You want to keep pointing out the difference between truth and untruth. If Curious George, an imaginary friend, or some other creature spills milk in your house, experts advise, let your child know that he is responsible for the actions of his pretend playmates. That way, you're respecting your child's imagination, but letting him know that the rules still apply.


After a group of her daughter's friends were playing around the family's piano, Elise Silverberg (not her real name), of Harrison, NY, noticed a series of scratches on the instrument. Her then 5-year-old daughter denied causing the damage, but Silverberg figured that it was very likely her little girl's handiwork. Months later, when they were alone near the piano, Silverberg said, "Sometimes we do things and don't even realize that we're doing them. I think maybe that's what happened with the scratches on the piano." Sure enough, the tears fell and the confession of guilt followed.

By the time most kids start school, experts agree, they're old enough to tell the difference between lies and truth. For a school-age child, something like the piano incident is typical. "Avoiding punishment is the primary purpose of lying for most children this age," says Rita Casey, Ph.D., director of the Merrill-Palmer Institute for Human Development, in Detroit.

But school-age kids have a laundry list of reasons for misrepresenting the truth: They think you won't let them do what they want; they want their way; they enjoy the response they get when they tell lies; they want to get out of doing something; or they need to learn how the world works. And some kids just love inventing tales.

A few weeks after Kiirstin Rautiola, then 5, of Sudbury, MA, went for a kindergarten screening, her mother got a call from the school psychologist asking about her child who attended another school. "I told her that we don't have a child at that school," recalls Amy Rautiola. "She said that Kiirstin had told her she had an older sibling there. But Kiirstin's our oldest child! Then the psychologist wanted to know more about Kiirstin's adoption. Kiirstin wasn't adopted. 'And is your husband from Thailand?' she asked. I told her that my husband couldn't look any more Finnish than he is."

Rautiola is able to laugh about this story  -- two years later. The psychologist assured her that it was normal for a 5-year-old to tell tall tales. Now a second-grader, Kiirstin has been encouraged to use her vivid imagination in writing rather than in fibbing.

If your child is prone to spinning stories, you'll help her by warning her that soon people won't believe what she says about other things. Indeed, the quickest cure for a school-age fibber may often come from her peers. "Other kids are good at nipping lies in the bud," says Casey. "They may say, 'Every time you say something, it's not the truth or you make it sound better than it is.' After a while, the child will likely stop lying."

Meanwhile, you can probably curb some of your child's lying by focusing on the motivation rather than on the fibbing itself. If you can figure out why your child has lied, you may be able to teach her a better way of handling similar situations.


"Imagine how you feel when you're stopped by a policeman for speeding," says Herman. "Many people will say something  -- anything  -- to try to wriggle out of a ticket. And that's how kids often feel when they're caught lying."

Most experts urge parents to keep the lie in perspective. You can show you disapprove by something as simple as a displeased look or tone of voice, or, in more serious cases, by the removal of privileges.

If your child swears up and down that he's washed his hands but really hasn't, you should probably send him back to do it without making much of the lie. But parents often get caught up in the fact that their kids have lied, and overreact to a normal breach of household rules. It's important to keep your cool  -- most kids find getting caught punishment enough. "Children are pretty tenderhearted," Casey says. "They don't want their parents to be upset with them."

If, however, the lie involves some egregious act that you would normally discipline your child for, consider increasing the punishment. If, say, your child rode his bike without a helmet and then lied about it, you might take his bike away for five days, explaining that three days are for breaking the helmet rule and two days are for lying about it.

Some lies are brought on by panic: "Did you break that vase?" you ask. "No," replies your child, even though the shards are in his hands. It's clear he's lying, but when faced with the question, he panics and tries to deny it. Pressing for a confession often makes the situation worse. A better approach, says Rona Novick, Ph.D., of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at Schneider Children's Hospital, in New Hyde Park, NY, would be to say simply, "Oh, you broke the vase. You must feel terrible. I do too. I loved that vase." If it's something that the child's been warned about touching, then a punishment is probably in order.

"It's crucial to highlight the benefits of honesty," stresses Novick. In other words, it's worse if your child did it and lied than if he did it and admitted it. Once your child has owned up to a lie, praise him for doing so. But that's not to say there won't be consequences. "Some parents say, 'I won't punish you as long as you're honest with me,' and that's a promise you just shouldn't make," Novick says.

As sure as you've got a child in your house, you'll have a liar living with you from time to time. Your job is to show your child that truth telling is valued and that you love him and won't be upset with him for making mistakes.

"You need to send kids the message that nobody's perfect," says Novick. "And that you're going to be less angry  -- and very proud of them  -- if they tell the truth."