Toddlers telling lies

How and why your toddler lies, and how you can best react.

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For most of us, a certain type of dishonesty is a necessary part of life – we’ll avoid telling our friend that she’s gained weight, for example!

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According to the experts, this is perfectly normal. “For adults, little white lies are the oil that smoothes our social interactions and we often lie to save someone’s feelings,” explains Dr Angharad Rudkin, a clinical child psychologist. “For children, learning how and when to lie is an important part of growing up and fitting in. But it’s a very grey area and it takes time to work out the nuances of what is acceptable and what is not.”

How your toddler lies

By the age of 2 or 3, your toddler begins to understand that others feel differently to him and have their own point of view. As a result, he’s able to work out that telling a lie might sometimes be a good strategy and could get him out of trouble. 

“We had just started potty training,” explains Flo, 38, mum to Sam, 3, “and I found Sam with a suspicious wet patch on his trousers. I asked him if he’d had an accident. Totally straight-faced, he replied, ‘Oh, no, Mummy. A big lion came in and gave me a big wet lick.’”

Why does he lie?

According to Dr Rudkin, lies like this are typical of this age group. “Toddlers find it hard to distinguish between reality and fantasy,” she says. “They don’t want mummy to be cross and, in their minds, the idea of a lion licking them makes perfect sense and helps to prevent them from getting into trouble.”

How do I react?

In these situations, it’s best not to make a big issue of the lie. At the same time, let your toddler know you’re not fooled – say something like, “What a funny story, but I don’t think that’s really what happened, is it?” and leave it at that.

How your pre-schooler lies

By the time your child’s 4 or 5, he’ll probably have worked out the nuances of lying and know that some stories are more plausible than others. His reasons for telling lies become more varied, too.

“I was picking Cameron up from nursery one day when his teacher starting talking to me about my wife, saying she hadn’t realised she was French,” says Dean, 40, dad to Cameron, 4.

“I replied that it was news to me, too – she’s from London! It turns out that the class was talking about different countries and Cameron came up with this story about his mother coming from France. The amount of detail he provided was incredible – it was as if he really believed that everything he’d said was true.”

Why does he lie?

“Fitting in is very important to this age group. I’ve lost count of the number of fictitious baby siblings or exotic holidays I’ve heard about! Pre-school children often make up stories to help them feel part of a group or a bit special. At other times, though, it’s just a case of misunderstanding something they’ve heard,” says Dr Rudkin.

How do I react?

Once again, it’s important not to overreact to lies like this, but to help children understand that lying for the sake of it, or to get out of trouble, is not acceptable.

Mums’ stories:

“Molly blames her imaginary giraffe”

“When I put Florence on her mat to play, I shut the sitting room door. I’ve told my older daughter, Molly, it’s to stop the draught.

“Molly is a bit jealous of Florence and can sometimes be a bit rough with her, hugging her a bit too hard or sometimes pinching her. One day when I’d left them together, Florence suddenly started screaming, so I rushed in. I asked Molly if she’d hurt her, and she replied, ‘No, it was the giraffe that lives outside the door. It came in and bit Florence.’

“I realised that when I’d been saying ‘draught’ she thought I’d said ‘giraffe’ and had decided that the giraffe she thought wasn’t allowed into the room would be a good scapegoat to get her out of trouble!”

Liz, 40, mum to Molly, 2, and Florence, 4 months

“They blamed the poo on the dog”

“The children were playing outside when Gretchin came in to get some wipes. It turned out that one of the other two had done a poo and they were having difficulty clearing it up, so they all decided to tell us that the dogs did it and they had accidentally sat on it. They thought this was the best way to avoid a telling-off!”

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Grechin, 36, mum to Jenny, 4

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