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How to Help Preschoolers Learn to Tell the Truth

WebMD talks to experts about how to help preschoolers learn the difference between telling lies and telling the truth.

When Dylan Bocanegra was three, he blamed the family's cat, Bamboo, for practically everything, recalls his mom Eva-Marie Fredric, a producer in Los Angeles.

Crayon scrawled all over the living room walls? Bamboo did it. Plastic bottle flushed down the toilet? Bamboo did it. Smoke rising from the TV set? Yup, it was you-know-who.

"Like most toddlers, Dylan had a vivid imagination and told tall tales," Fredric says. "Our cat became the scapegoat for everything he did."

That was years ago -- Dylan is now a teen. But some things never change -- plenty of preschoolers, then and now, do like he did and stretch the truth.

True Lies

Preschoolers (aged 3-5) are learning to grasp the line between reality and fantasy. Telling a fib or tall tale is not an unusual way to explore this boundary at this age. Parents are often hardwired to react hotly to what they see as a lie, but this may not always be the best way to handle the situation.

"At age 3, it's often when parents will say, 'Gosh, my child is lying. I don't know what to do," says Tanya Remer Altmann, MD, FAAP, pediatrician and author of Mommy Calls: Dr. Tanya Answers Parents' Top 101 Questions About Babies and Toddlers. "But it's a fuzzy line between what's real and what's in their imagination."

Let's say that your 3-year-old spilled milk on the floor. You ask, "Who spilled it?" and your child says, "Not me." It's not that your child is lying, Altmann says. She may wish she didn't spill it, or if the spill took place an hour ago, she might not even remember spilling it.

Anyone under age 5 is too young to understand what a lie is, says Mark Bowers, PhD, pediatric psychologist in Ann Arbor, Mich. They don't have the same cognitive capacity as a kindergarten-age kid who begins to learn the difference between right and wrong.

"You don't have a future criminal on your hands because your child's not 'fessing up to spilling the milk in the kitchen," Bowers says.

Laying Down the Ground Rules

If you catch your child drawing on the walls, you may be tempted to confront her: "Are you the one who did this?" Chances are she'll say "no" because she doesn't want to make you mad or get in trouble.

It's better to state what the rule is and offer a solution, Bowers says. For example, "We have a rule in this house that we only draw on paper. So why don't we get some soap and you can help Daddy clean it up."

To avoid accusations, he advocates a Columbo approach, or playing dumb. Within your child's earshot, you can say: "Oh, I wonder how this milk got spilled? It would really be nice if somebody could help me clean it up."

After your kid comes over and helps you, give him a high five for helping out.

"These are teaching opportunities to show your child what they should do in the future," Altmann says. "Unless it's really serious, stay away from punishment and turn it into a learning opportunity."

Superheroes, Disneyland, and Tall Tales

Creativity is at a high point from age 3 to 5, Bowers says.

Imaginary play is part of a child's natural growth and development. You start to see imaginary friends, superhero fantasies, wishful thinking, and talk about places your child has never been, like Disneyland. You can help nurture your child's imagination while teaching them the importance of honesty.

Don't worry if your child details a fictitious trip to Disneyland. Simply respond by saying, "Well, you know, we haven't been to Disneyland yet, but if we did go, what would you want to do?"

"Whenever possible, have fun with them," Bowers says. "Join them so they can pursue what's in their imagination."

Preschoolers often stretch the truth to get your attention. You can encourage your child to tell the truth, says Fran Walfish, PsyD, a child and family psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent.

One way she suggests is saying to your child: "You have such a wonderful imagination and when you say A, B, or C, I can't always tell if it's your imagination or if it's real. The thing that is most important, that makes a person feel safe between two people, is when we tell the truth and always say what's real."

Be Positive, Don't Judge

"It's very important to be able to gently, without judgment, put accountability where it belongs," Walfish says. "You have to bust your child in a nice way."

Use language your preschooler can understand. For example, you might say: "It's hard sometimes to tell Mommy that you did it. You say the cat did it because you're worried about Mommy being mad at you. But you and I both know the cat can't do it. I'm the kind of Mommy that wants to hear that you did it and then we can talk about other ways you can get my attention."

Altmann recommends using positive phrasing. "Say 'it's important to tell the truth' instead of saying, 'Oh, you lied.' I would urge parents not to say that," she says.

Stay away from the negative stigma of calling your child a liar, Walfish says. It labels the child, makes her feel bad and that she has to hide things from you.

"You want to keep the connections open so that your child can tell you anything," Walfish says.

You don't have to wait for these types of situations to crop up. Bowers suggests reading books together that encourage honesty, such as The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

How did Fredric get her son, Dylan, to stop his fibbing? She used a cat hand puppet and a different voice to get him to 'fess up to the truth.

At the puppet's prompting, he admitted to things he did, apologized, and gave his mom a big hug. "It actually made him feel safe to tell the truth," Fredric says. "He didn't worry about getting in trouble."

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