Another forwarded email from Leslie D. This is good to know.
What to expect at this age
Between ages 3 and 4, your preschooler begins to separate truth from falsehood, but this doesn't mean he's the most dependable reporter. He's still swayed by forgetfulness, wishful thinking, and imagination. (He honestly doesn't remember leaving his bath towel on the floor, he really wants to believe he didn't track in that mud, and he's certain the wind blew his broccoli off his plate and onto the floor so the dog could eat it!)
When children this age lie knowingly and willfully, "it's usually because they're afraid of punishment or they're afraid of disappointing us," says Jane Nelsen, author of the Positive Discipline book series. Preschoolers haven't yet developed a conscience that prevents them from telling lies. They do, however, know that certain actions are wrong, and they don't want to get into trouble. You can nudge yours toward becoming an honest person by creating an environment in which he feels safe telling the truth.
What you can do
Avoid labels. Don't call your child a liar. It'll only make him defensive, and over time he may start to believe in and live up (or down) to the label. Instead, let him know that you don't like lies, but you still love him — no matter what he's done. Say gently but firmly, "That doesn't sound like the truth to me. Sometimes we all worry about telling the truth if we're afraid we've done something wrong."
Don't ask questions when you already know the answer. If you're quite sure that your preschooler hasn't cleaned his room, resist the urge to ask, "Did you clean up yet?" says Jerry L. Wyckoff, a family therapist and the co-author of Discipline Without Shouting or Spanking. "It just sets the stage for a lie." Instead say, "I see that you didn't clean up your room," or, better yet, "Please show me your tidy room," which lets him know that you intend to verify the facts personally. This way, you're able to deal with one issue — his responsibility to complete his chore — without inviting a lie as well. If you do catch your child in a lie, don't ask, "Are you telling the truth?" Very few children (and few adults) will respond to that question with a "no." You're likely to get more cooperation if you come back with, "That sounds like a story to me. You know, you won't be in trouble for telling the truth."
Find out why your child is fibbing. Your preschooler cheated big-time while playing Candyland with the family, and then denies doing anything wrong. But instead of leaping to the podium to give a lecture, prompt him with, "I know it was really important for you to win that game." Then let him talk about why he wanted to win so badly. Afterward, the two of you can discuss other ways to try to win and why fair play is important.
Praise truth-telling. When your preschooler tells the truth, reward him with praise. Especially if he's been caught lying in the past, he'll feel great about himself when he hears you say, "Thanks for telling me the truth. I like it when you do that."
Don't forget "little white lies." You want your child to be honest, yet not so honest that he blurts out things that hurt people's feelings ("Grandma, this is a dumb present. I'm too old for teddy bears!"). Explain why it's important to look for something positive to say, even if it's as general as, "Thanks for remembering my birthday, Grandma."
Teach your child that lying doesn't work. We all lapse, and children are no exception. If your preschooler vigorously denies knocking over and breaking the vase with his new ball, voice your view of the facts — "It sounds to me like you wish you hadn't broken the vase" — and then give him a way to make up for his behavior (by having him help you clean up the mess and glue the vase back together, for instance). He'll learn that lying didn't make him any less accountable.
Set a good example. The best way to teach honesty is to be honest. Your preschooler will be confused about the rules if he hears you tell a caller that your partner, who's chopping vegetables in the kitchen, isn't home, or if you tell a ticket seller that he's younger than he is so you can save a dollar or two. Even when difficult subjects such as illness, death, or divorce come up, try to be straightforward. A preschooler who's told that his recently deceased Grandpa has just "gone away for a while," for example, will become anxious and confused about death, distrustful of your explanations, and inclined to think that telling the truth isn't really all that important. Better to tackle the subject sensitively — and honestly.