Let's Talk Kids: "Those Dirty Liars"

May 10, 2017

One morning, four-year-old Devon watches as big brother Andrew prepares to leave for school. Andrew realizes his backpack isn’t where he left it and races around the house frantically, desperate to find the supplies he needs for his school day. The whole family engages in the search, checking anywhere he might have accidentally left it.

Watching the clock, Dad announces they simply have to leave or Andrew will be late for school.  Frustrated, Andrew wipes his eyes, trudging to Dad’s car without the backpack.

After the unhappy departure of Andrew and Dad, Mom notices Devon looks sheepish.  She asks if he knows anything about the backpack, which he immediately denies.  But Mom takes a stroll to Devon’s room and peeks under his bed.  There she finds it:  Andrew’s missing backpack.

She returns to Devon, evidence in hand, and asks, “Did you take the backpack?”  To this question, Devon innocently answers that no, he didn’t take it. At this point, Mom’s concerned her four-year-old’s turning into a liar.  

Most parents of preschoolers have faced their child looking them straight in the eye, telling them a bold-faced lie.  What’s going on here?

While lying may be a moral shortcoming in adults, it’s not the same thing for young children.  During early childhood, children sort out fantasy from reality, and the line that separates them is somewhat fluid.  This often leads to their “magical thinking” as they navigate the world.

Magical thinking is characterized by the child’s sense that the world revolves around him.  He doesn’t think “the moon shines down,” but rather he figures “the moon shines down on me,” seeing himself as the cause of all that happens.

That sense of power makes him think he can change what happens by saying it’s so.  A five-year-old may report what she wishes were true, such as denying spilling her milk even as you watch her do it.  “I didn’t spill my milk,” may really mean “I wish I didn’t spill my milk.” Conscientious parents panic when they catch their little one in a lie, and worry about a significant character flaw.  

It’s certainly appropriate to correct preschoolers when they tell untruths. But it may be helpful to realize that such stories are not a moral lapse, but possibly a venture into some home-grown magical thinking.