My Toddler Told Her First Lie

Not long ago, an adorable video of a little boy telling his mother repeatedly that he had not gotten into a certain container of red candy sprinkles, all while wearing the telltale sprinkles all over his face, went viral. The video is funny as can be, and as a parent, it would be difficult not to laugh. However, it did strike me at the time that the toddler was awfully young to have already started lying.

Or so I thought.

Cut to a few months later, when I experienced a very similar moment with my own toddler. I had given her a little cup of pretzel goldfish as a snack. I stepped away for a few moments; when I returned, the cup was on the floor and the pretzels were scattered all about. I asked our little girl what had happened, and she looked me in the eye, turned her palms upward, cocked her head to the side, and shrugged her shoulders, the universal gesture for "I don't know."

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First, I had never seen her make this gesture, and it was ridiculously cute, especially coming from an 18-month-old. The corners of my mouth twitched and I started to smile, and then it occurred to me that my baby girl may have just told me her first lie.

Now, I lied my ass off to my parents for years, so having my own child lie to me is probably my karma. However, I typically lied so that I would not get in trouble. Our little girl had never actually gotten into trouble (although she had been told that food is not to be thrown on the floor). Nonetheless, we had never had cause to discipline her, so I would not think she would instinctively be trying to protect herself. I was puzzled and curious.

I conferred with a good friend of ours who happens to be a body language expert, analyzing everyone from potential criminals as a consultant for law enforcement to admitted fibbers like Lance Armstrong. When I described to him what our daughter had done, he said, "Oh yeah, she was totally lying ... get used to it." Our baby girl, lying!

Now, of course, because she couldn't yet really talk, there's a chance she might simply have been telling me, non-verbally, that she didn't know how she managed to spill the pretzels. But it begged the question, when do children begin to lie, and how do they learn this behavior?

In researching this subject, I learned that children typically start experimenting with lying pretty early, around the age of 2. Oftentimes, the lying is fantastical, such as telling wild stories about a furry pink rhinoceros who came into the child's room after everyone was asleep. Other times, it's to avoid getting into trouble, as with the red candy sprinkles. And even other times, it's because of an insecurity or embarrassment, like lying about friendships, popularity, homework, or grades.

At any rate, it's clear that the capacity to lie is part of our DNA as humans. The question is, how do we handle it when it comes from our own children?

I polled some of my mom friends, and one of my closest friends -- a mother of three young girls -- had my favorite answer. She said that when she knew one of her children was lying to her, she would look her deeply and earnestly in the eye and ask, "Are you telling the truth in your heart?" Invariably, the child would 'fess up, and the lies were never really harmful, coming from such young children.

The key, I guess, is learning your child's "tells," much like my friend the body language expert. That way, as your child gets older, you'll be better able to tell when he or she is not being honest. 

At least I hope so.

Until then, I'm just going to do whatever I can to instill honesty in our young girl, and I know that includes our being honest with her as much as possible as her parents. Because we all know our kids see and hear everything, and pick up more than we will ever know.

As one of my mentors used to always say, having learned it from one of his mentors, "When all else fails, try the truth."

So I want to know: Have your kids lied to you? How did you handle it?


Image via Joanna Montgomery

language, toddler development