Lying: The Developmental Truth

I stared at the toast lying on top of the trash in disbelief. I was ticked. My four year old told me he had eaten all of his toast and wanted something else to eat. I went into the dining room where he was eating his peaches.

“I thought you told me you ate all your toast?”
“I did.”
“No, you threw it in the trash.”
“No, I didn’t. I ate it all.”

I took him by the hand and led him to the trash. “Look, there’s your toast.” He looked at me like he really didn’t know how it had gotten there.

This wasn’t the first time I’d caught him in a lie and I was frustrated. I couldn’t understand it. I don’t punish my children. I don’t reward them either. What do they have to fear by telling me the truth? My 7 year old had never lied to me. I really believe he’s physically incapable of it. It would alter his universe of science and order too much. But my 4 year old was born with his own personality and had no qualms about chaos. I felt connected to my youngest child. Our relationship was good. From all of my research and involvement with AP, I naively believed that if my parenting was focused on relationship, things like this wouldn’t happen. So why was he lying to me?

This was a real test of my AP philosophy. I didn’t want to damage our relationship, but how could I practically enforce that lying is wrong without inflicting some sort of punishment? What I really wanted to do was spank him, put him in time out, ground him from food, and take away his playdates for six-months. But I was keen enough to my own inner-workings to realize that these were the tapes of my past, reminding me of what would have happened to me if I had dared lie to my parents. This was cultural pressure telling me that I must enforce strict boundaries or my child would turn into a social deviant.

I turned to my fellow AP leaders for help. The replies were encouraging and supportive. No one told me to lock him up for the next 10 years. One leader pointed me towards a study entitled “Parenting Tips: Praise Can Be Bad; Lying is Normal”. It was a long read and I disagreed with some of the conclusions, but what I learned gave me much-needed developmental background on my 4 year old. I found out that lying is a stage that most typically-developing children go through and that punishment only makes it worse. In fact, children who were punished dug their heels in further and refused to reconcile their actions with reality.

I also learned about something called “wish fulfillment” from the other leaders. This is when a child tells what they want to be true because they hope that saying it will make it true. My son wanted the toast to be gone, so he said it was. All of this gave me the information I needed to act, and to do so within the philosophy that I knew to be right.

So for the next few months, whenever my son told a lie, I would repeat what he said framing it as a wish. He hated taking the time to wash his hands when he was done in the restroom. When he came out, I would remind him to wash his hands. He would tell me that he did and I would respond, “I know you wish you had washed your hands, but I see that your hands are still dry. Please go get those germs off.” I acknowledged what he wanted to be true while, at the same time, establishing the expectation that reality prevailed. Pretty soon, the lying stopped. I don’t believe it was because I necessarily responded in the right way, but because I gave him room to grow through this stage. And our relationship didn’t suffer.

Understanding developmental milestones can give us the information that we need to understand our children and to continue to operate within the framework of AP. Of course, all children are different, and each meets milestones at varying stages. Some breeze through them, others stumble; but as parents, we can support them. When you find yourself at your wits’ end, ask yourself about your relationship, but don’t neglect the developmental truth.

Author: Dedra

Dedra, Forum Administrator for API, enjoys peacefully taking the road less traveled with her husband and two boys.

31 thoughts on “Lying: The Developmental Truth”

  1. I think we need to be careful in brushing off things as “developmental milestones” when in reality they are sin. Developmental milestones are crawling, cutting teeth, verbal skills, and other physical or tangible gains. However, lying, defiance, rebellion and the like are evidences of sin.

    Yes, our children are precious and wonderful gifts and we should encourage their expressions and work hard to have a gentle and peaceful relationship with them, but we must also remember that they, like us, have a sinful nature in need of redemption. We cannot redeem them, but can, through our gentle training and consistent teaching, point them to the Redeemer, Christ, and the hope offered in him.

    Rebellion and lying and the like should not be ignored, permissible, or treated casually; but our children should be graciously, consistently taught that it is sinful and dishonoring to Mommy and to God. Our training must be full of love and compassion, because just like our children, we too struggle with sin and need the gospel of Christ to redeem our souls just as they do.

    Setting consistent boundaries and teaching children to see their behavior as it is, not what they wish it was or we wish it was, speaking the truth in love to them, not only encourages our children to speak the truth, but to see themselves with truth, and in so doing, grow to be a wise and diligent individual who treats the truth with honor.

    1. Megan, as far as I’m concerned, and probably many others, you pushing your beliefs on this site is ‘sin’. I feel sorry that you believe your children have a ‘sinful nature’. Children are pure.

      1. As for the article I think most of it is hogwash! I do like the idea of how she purposly redirected her child with the “wish”, not putting her child on the defense and got the desired response. Megan you are DEAD on!. Romans 6:23 “For ALL have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” All means All, this does not exclude children.

      2. Fallen nature has yo start somewhere. Lying is wrong, you can call it a sin or a character flaw but either way it’s wrong.

    2. Megan, I’d be interested to know how you would handle a similar situation. I am open to all suggestions, which is why I ask. I think I might just try the “wish” option, but I would like other options as well. Thankfully my son does not lie to us very often and when it does it’s the normal kids stuff of “I didn’t touch it” when we all saw him do it. He is actually very honest and will be the first one to tell me when he’s had a rough day at school.

    3. As a Christian, though I certainly believe our children are capable of sinning, I also believe that sinning is basically “not being perfect”. And well, no one is. And part of not being perfect as an adult is being raised by imperfect adults and living in an imperfect world. It’s inescapable. So a child who does not want all his toast may say it is gone because he wants it gone. If this were a perfect world, he wouldn’t have gotten too much toast. Or he would have wanted to eat it all if he were perfect. As adults we know enough to say: “This was too much toast. I don’t want it all.” or “Can I have less toast please?” So the lie IS NOT the same as if an adult was lying. It isn’t the same kind of “sin”. I believe that is why the author speaks of it as a developmental milestone.

    4. I agree that lying is a sin and that we are all born into sin. I also really like the gentle way of handling this situation. My son is the same age and stage and he just doesn’t understand what a lie is. I think hoe I will start to address this is to actually use the word “lie.” Ex I know that you wish you washed your hand but you did not so saying you did is a lie. then explain using Biblical stories that he is familiar with to illustrate how that makes God feel. I too want my children to live according to a Higher (and Unchanging) standard and learn that we all need Christ to help us do so. He already had Jesus in his heart and times like these are a great time to remind him what that means for his behavior.

      And I am the first to admit that my children are not perfect (and neither am I) and it is hard to understand that even if they don’t understand they are doing it they are sinning. I don’t always recognize my own sin and I believe it is my job as a parent to help my children identify their sin, admit it, and then repent of it.

  2. Sinful? Really? Let’s agree to stay off our religious soapboxes in these posts. The author has a reasoned and researched point.

  3. Just a quick note from the editor: Attachment Parenting International is a non-sectarian organization and therefore we don’t take positions on religious views. However, I do encourage everyone to be respectful of one another as they post their own personal views. The world is full of a variety of viewpoints and with respectful and open communication we can all learn from one another, which ultimately allows us to all uphold a compassionate, respectful response to our children.

  4. I am experiencing this now. I am so glad some one addressed this situation as you have. I will try this tack. I too have done as stated in the first few paragraphs, and I too have been completely thrown by the lying thing. Thanks for taking the time to write your experience.

    The thing that worries me most about Megan’s comment is there is no specific ways mentioned, which lead me to believe that crossing of boundaries is met with punishment- I can tell you first hand that I was brought up learning to ‘honour mom and God’ and now I am an atheist with guilt over the anger I have with my family philosophies.
    I have always known down deep in my brain somewhere that defiance and rebelliousness are not sins. ( Sin is not a concept that I can even accept any longer) Now I know that that lying may serve some developmental purpose and can address this in a positive manner.

  5. What a lovely article. I absolutely needed this reminder right now that loving my son unconditionally means accepting that he is still going to have behaviors that I don’t particularly care for and that is normal. It doesn’t mean that punishments are necessary. A loving and respectful realtionship with my son is more important that perfect behavior.
    In addition, I have to respectfully disagree with Megan that children are sinful by nature and are in need of redemption. My entire relationship with my son is built on the (non-religious) belief that he is a caring, kind, thoughtful and “good” little person. To assume the worst about a person tends to bring out the worst in them.

  6. Thank you Dedra, I found your article very informative and am going to read up more on lying as a developmental stage.

  7. Thanks for the tip on using the term “I know you WISH this, but here is reality.” My dd too has “problems” with lying and I know some of them are from her imagination. She imagines she’s done something and it’s her reality. trying to bridge the gap between what she imagined and true reality are sometimes impossible.

    Though not labeled AP, A book I read called, “I May Frustrate you, but I’m a Keeper” by Ray Lincoln takes gentle parenting and understanding your child to an amazing level. In there he discusses how some children with certian personalities (the very imaginative ones) will lie and be completely convinced they are telling the truth because it DID happen in their minds, which are very real to them. You’re use of the word “wish” is a great way to help bridge that gap. Thank you. Hopefully I don’t have to try this too soon, but that will be my tactic next time.

    Thanks again.

  8. Where as i do believe in God, i do not believe that I should hit or spank my child in order to prove my redemption, and I certainty do not believe forcing any one, including my children, into religion. I live by faith, not religion or rules. I share my faith with my kiddos, but i do not force it on them. It is false for them if it is forced on them. I do not judge, even those who disagree with me because we all have something to gain from each other. I was judged so much growing up, that it left me a broken and depressed teenager. I had to start over as a person.
    My 4 yr old son has tried to lie to me. Growing up i was spanked IF caught in a lie. It just taught me to be a better lier. Being with my son and attached to him most of the time makes it so much easier to determine a lie from truth.
    With my boy, if he lies, i point out the truth to him, and remind him that we are an honest family and we tell the truth. He normally very good at retracting and readdressing the situation in an honest manner.
    If he doesn’t want me to know something, then it is okay to tell me so. The best way I have found to teach him to tell the truth, is to not lie myself. He is with me all the time, so he sees, hears, and knows if i am stretching the truth or out right lying. If i am in a situation where i am tempted to lie, i am open with him and tell him, “Mommy didn’t want to tell the truth about [that], but i did and it was the right thing to do. It feels good to make the right choice, and now [person] knows he/she can trust me to tell the truth.”
    I love it, because he will tell me that he wants to lie to me, but has decided to be honest. I hug him and love on him and tell him how proud i am of him at these moments. (and many other moments)
    I love the idea about letting him know that he wishes or desires that something were true while addressing the lie. I think i will include that from now on too.

  9. Sinful? Please.

    Defiance is NOT sinful. It is human. Who the heck does whatever they’re told whenever they’re told to do it? What adult would do that?

    Respect your children as adults, because that’s who they’ll be someday. I think treating a lie as no big deal is the right thing to do. Lying makes the liar feel bad, too, and if you make it a huge thing, you’ve just damaged your relationship with your child. They will forever associate both the negative feelings from lying AND the negative feelings of being shouted at/abused with you. Congrats; you’ve effed up your kid.

  10. Just a clarifying point – I absolutely would NEVER condone any form of abuse and have never and will never, never shout at my children (unless absolutely vital to get their attention in a dangerous situation). When I refer to training, I mean gentle, consistent teaching, through example, stories, teachable moments. It should always be loving, full of grace, and peaceful; but children need to understand the difference between right and wrong and that there are moral absolutes. When we see wrong heart attitudes and their subsequent outpourings into wrong behavior in our children, it is our duty, as loving parents, to gently address the issue, help our children to understand their hearts and what the right choice is, and to teach them mastery over their struggles while assuring them of our unconditional love for them as the precious gifts they are, regardless of their behavior.

  11. Thanks Megan. I apologize for my seeming offensive position. Yes, there is a difference between right and wrong. Sometimes that difference is a fine line, or no line, but a smudge. My goal is to give my child the tools with which to make her decisions. I.E. I am a vegetarian. My daughter is raised this way. I am often asked why do I not let her choose. Well it is for the very reason that I would not let her choose to hit her friend over the head with a lead pipe. I find it morally wrong for many reasons. However there may come a time when she decides something different. That is what I mean by there being a smudge. Lying is like that as well. I have found myself in so much trouble, so many times for trying to always tell the truth. Sometimes truth is perspective differences, as in the examples of the children above. In their perspective they are telling a truth. Our job is to help them learn to clarify. I try to think of it like this: If I were trying to teach an alien to this planet about everyday life here, would I subject it to punishment? Unconditional love is very difficult. It is good have these resources such as blogs to bounce around ideas.

  12. I vividly recall actually believing the lie I told as a child. When I was found out and it was proven that I had lied, I was as amazed at the evidence as the one I lied to. Most of the time, I had absolutely no reason to do so. I once told my kindergarten teacher that my parents went on a trip to Ireland wjen my mom was pregnant with me and she ended up giving birth to me there. Completely untrue. I have NO IDEA why I lied.
    What made me stop was my dad’s invention. He started to make up amazing stories, insisting they were true. When he got me to believe him, he would tell me he had lied. I would be disappointed, and he’d explain that is how others feel when I lied to them. It worked better than punishment!

  13. I hope you don’t mind, but I totally disagree. Lying is one of the most terrible things anyone can do in a relationship. It makes it impossible to communicate, to trust, everything. I NEVER EVER let my child think that a lie is ok. If they wish something, they must say wish, not mislead people.

    In my house I try not to give them reasons to lie. Kids lie, not because they wish they’d washed their hands, but because they didn’t want to in the first place. Again, I teach the child to simply say “no, I didn’t wash my hands” or “I don’t think I should have to wash my hands” instead of lying and then we can have a discussion about the germs,etc.

    Liars are terrible and I cannot support any minimization of lying. Maybe some learn not to lie, but some kids just get really good at it so you can’t detect. You even told the child that if he wets his hands, you won’t know, so you improved his lying ability.

    Also, I don’t believe in punitive punishment, but I do believe in exposing the child to the consequences. In this case, the child is harming our relationship by lying. I explain that, and I make sure the child knows how lying to me makes me feel. He can choose whether or not he lies, but if he makes himself into a liar then he is cutting off his ability to have a good relationship with other people. He simply cannot be trusted and is not worth listening to if the words he uses are meant to deceive.

    And my son also stopped lying (as far as I know). He’s lied about 3 times, and he doesn’t feel the need to lie because we can discuss any disagreement. The truth plus a negotiation is far better than a lie plus a ruined relationship.

  14. I believe in sin but I also believe in age of accountability. I’m not sure a 4 year old has enough info to intentionally sin. At that age, there is a basic knowledge of right and wrong but possibly not the cognitive resources to really choose.

  15. Hi, I reread the prior comment. It sounds more “matter of fact” than I intended. Those are opinions; what happens at my house and not necessarily what should happen in every house. I really think lying is a terrible defect so I teach that to my kids. I know some other people think that lying, especially at a young age, is harmless. Sorry! Hope you understand.

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  17. I like how you handled the situation. You used the resources that were available and you gathered information, processed your own biases from your own upbringing and made an informed decision. I applaud you for thinking outside the box. I also applaud you for your honesty in sharing how you felt in the situation. Developmental stages come into our lives with the power of a hurricane sometimes. When my son was biting, I was so frustrated. I had to work through this stage by gathering information and seeking out help from my trusted AP community members. And then before I knew it, the developmental stage had passed and onto the next stage!

    Just for the record, I am not the same “Megan” saying that lying in a child is a sin on the comment thread here.

  18. Thank you so much – my 4 year old is going through this right now and I am having a hard time dealing with it, as my older son never went through this stage either. I can’t wait for him to wake up so I can try out this new technique -thanks!

  19. Thank you. I can’t say it enough to have googled this and found your answer. While I don’t know if my son will respond to this or not, I know his intentions aren’t bad, I just can’t bear to allow this behavior and how to successfully impart the knowledge about how powerful being honest is seemed so impossible. Sincerely. Thank you.

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