"I Didn't Do It!"

You’re peacefully sitting in the living room when you hear a crash in the next room. As you rush in, you see your two-year-old standing in the middle of a flour-covered kitchen floor. Despite the fact that she is still holding the flour bag, she looks you right in the eye and tells you she didn’t do it.

Toddlers learn quickly that lying can get them out of an uncomfortable situation. Unfortunately, they learn less quickly that honesty is the better option. In fact, many times toddlers don’t even understand that what they are doing is lying. So how do you teach your toddler that honesty is the best policy?

Fact vs. Fiction
While lying is not desirable behavior in most people, toddlers can’t be blamed for their untruths. Many times they don’t realize that what they are saying is a lie. As their mind develops and their imagination grows, they just can’t distinguish reality from fantasy. Even though your daughter only dreamed that she saw a troll in the backyard, she may believe that there really was a troll. Even when your son knows that he is making up a story, it is unlikely that he will recognize what he is saying as a lie.

Because a toddler’s lies are more likely to be the result of a confusion between what is real and what they want to be real, punishing your child when they lie at this age is not necessarily helpful to the situation. If their story is clearly a work of fiction, encourage their imagination while still differentiating between reality and fantasy, by commenting “You sure tell a good story! Isn’t it fun to play make believe?”

Caught Red Handed
When you catch your toddler with their hand in the cookie jar, literally, don’t get mad. Instead, let them know that you are aware of what they’ve done, that you’re not upset with them and suggest what they should do in the future. For example, “I saw you take that cookie. I know you’re worried that I’ll be upset and so you didn’t want to tell me. Next time, ask me first if you can have a cookie.”

You can also give them the opportunity to come clean about their indiscretion. When the books from the bookshelf are all over the floor, ask “Who put all these books on the floor? I sure wish I had someone to help me put them away.” When your toddler does fess up to their mistake, thank them for being honest with you. If they see that you won’t get mad when they’ve done something wrong, they’re more likely to be up front about it next time.

Setting an Example
Toddlers learn the most about appropriate behavior through what they see around them. When your toddler constantly catches you lying, chances are they will lie more often themselves. If you are caught in a lie by your toddler, even a white lie, explain to them why your lie was wrong and why you shouldn’t have said it.

Also, avoid lying to your toddler, even when you think it will ease the pain of the situation. A white lie may seem called for instead of saying, for instance, “Whoa! This is going to be painful!” when taking off a toddler’s band-aid. Yet as soon as that band-aid starts to pull at their skin, your lies will be revealed. Don’t compromise all that you have taught your toddler about honesty by lying to them.