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Three-Year-Old Is Lying

Toddler and Teenager Expert Advice from Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M., LCSW

Q: How do I handle a three year old who lies? I understand that at that age she may not understand about truth and lies, but I'm at a loss about handling the situation.

My daughter found a great hiding place behind a couch. We discovered at different times a Christmas and a Hanukkah present unwrapped. I knew she had done the deed, and asked her about it. She denied everything. I tried to explain about waiting to open the presents. I tried to tell her about truth and lying. I don't spank my kids, so she shouldn't be afraid of a spanking.

This is not the first time we have caught her lying, but I have attributed it to her age.

What can you suggest I do before it becomes a real problem?

A: I don't think you have a real problem or that this promises to be one. She is three and three year olds lie. Not because they are inherently without moral character or because of poor parenting. Lawrence Kutner, child psychologist, says in his book, Parent and Child, "Three-year-olds see the world in black and white terms...they have been told that they should be good. They want to believe that they are good...therefore, they weren't the ones who poured jam all over the sleeping cocker spaniel. Denying their culpability is neither malicious nor sneaky; it just reflects the unshaded terms in which preschoolers view the world."

In Cathy Rindner Tempelsman's, Child-Wise, she observes, "The three-year-old who lies about taking a cookie isn't really a "liar" after all. He simply can't control his impulses. He then convinces himself of a new truth and, eager for your approval, reports the version that he knows will make you happy."

Empathizing with her eagerness to open up presents will offer her more support than lecturing her about waiting and truth and lies. In all instances where she has lied and will lie, find the curiosity or motivation for the deed she did, and what she feels she needs to lie about. Once she knows you understand what caused her to "misbehave" and that you are angry, she will be able to discuss why she did it. I'm not suggesting you condone lying. I'm suggesting you shift your focus.

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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.

Please note: This "Expert Advice" area of FamilyEducation.com should be used for general information purposes only. Advice given here is not intended to provide a basis for action in particular circumstances without consideration by a competent professional. Before using this Expert Advice area, please review our General and Medical Disclaimers.


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