The BEST way to handle a 3-4 year old who lies

Do you catch your 3-4 year old in a lie quite often? You might be feeling frustrated when they don’t tell you the truth. You want them to tell the truth but nothing is working so far! Here are some gentle strategies to deal with a lying 3-4 year old.

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Tell me if this sounds familiar, you asked your 3-4 year old to pick up their toys in their bedroom, some time passes so you ask them if they did it.

Your child says, “Yes.”

But when you go to their room the toys aren’t picked up at all.

“They lied to me!” you think, and actually this has been happening a lot lately.

You feel frustrated because you don’t want your child to lie, and even when you tell them they should tell the truth it still happens! You’re feeling a little bit worn out and fed up by the whole thing, but you still want to be gentle in your response to them. So what do you do?

There are 2 big reasons why young children lie

#1. They are pretending/wishing

Pretend play is so important for a child’s development, but it can easily cross over into real life. Sometimes the things they say are completely unbelievable (like last night a giraffe climbed through their bedroom window and sang a song) but other pretend things they say actually sound believable (like “Yes mommy, I picked up my toys.”)

They might be giving the answer the WISH was true, even though they know they didn’t actually pick up their toys. This “pretend” storytelling comes in realistic scenarios so it can seem a lot like lying. How would you respond if they were saying something completely made up? Maybe you’d say, “Did that really happen?” or “Did it happen in real life or just pretend?”

#2. They’re lying to protect themselves from a consequence

Hey guess what, we as adults do this too! Your friend asks if you like her dress, you don’t, but you just say, “It’s nice.” That’s a way that even in adulthood we lie to protect ourselves from a consequence, in this case a social consequence.

Maybe you don’t lie like that though and don’t want your children too either. That’s definitely ok!

But they consequence they might be protecting themselves from in this case might be if they’ll be punished for telling the truth. If they admit that they didn’t pick up their toys will you yell at them, lecture them or punish them? The protection might not last very long, but it’s their immediate instinct to protect themselves.

Adjusting to Gentle Parenting can be difficult because punishments are usually the norm, but not in Gentle Parenting. So maybe before you started using these positive discipline strategies you used to punish, and that’s what your child remembers. For now just keep working on building more security for them so they won’t be afraid to tell the truth. If you asked them if they picked up their toys you can just say something simple, and gentle like, “Well you better go pick them up then!” rather than reacting in a strong or negative way.

Related: Toddler Tantrums (The Full Effective Guide)

If you want your child to tell the truth, set them up for success

This type of “lying” can be common for the two reasons listed above, and it’s probably not a sign that your child will grow up to be a compulsive liar or anything.

If you want your 3-4 year old to lie less, you need to set them up for success in the way you ask the questions.

First of all, “Did you pick up your toys?” is a vague question. Maybe they picked up 1 or 2 but not the majority of the toys. Maybe they picked one up and started playing with it before they put it away, and then got distracted.  Instead you could ask if they put any of the toys away, and maybe they did, then you could ask if they put ALL the toys away.

You could even avoid asking a question in the first place.

Instead of asking a question, you can simply say, “Ok I’m going to go to your room soon to see if you picked up your toys.” They might run to their room to go pick them up before you get there! Or if you get there and the toys are still on the floor you can say, “Oh, it looks like some of these toys still need to be picked up. Maybe you could start with that one?”

They’re not in trouble for not picking up their toys, and you’re also not forcing immediate obedience. Instead, you’re giving them to opportunity to do what they’re supposed to. In the end, once they have picked up all their toys, they can feel good about a job well done, instead of you both feeling as if the whole procedure was like pulling teeth!

And what if they do lie?

If you do ask them if they picked up their toys, and they do lie to you then when you go to their room you can say something like, “Oops, you said you picked up all your toys but they’re still on the floor!”

Try asking yourself why they lied though. Were they pretending? Were they afraid of the consequence of telling the truth?

You can still, absolutely impart good morals in your children and encourage them not to lie while also handling lying in a gentle way. As they get older you can start to have more conversations about what it means to tell the truth and what it means to lie. These conversations can even start now, but be careful not to try shaming your child into telling the truth as that can easily backfire.

Patience goes a long way

Overall though, be patient and understanding with your child. This might just be something you’re both adjusting to or they have a wild imagination and may need some guidance to give a truthful answer when you really need to know what happened, “in real life.”

More About 3 and 4 Year Olds

How to get 3 year olds to listen

How to get a 4 year old to listen

How to Handle a 4 Year Old With Attention Seeking Behaviour

What to do when your 3 year old lies

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