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What to expect at this age
By the time she reaches kindergarten, your child has a pretty good handle on the difference between truth and falsehood. Most of the time, her fabrications grow out of forgetfulness and wishful thinking (she actually doesn't remember taking that candy bar off the counter, and she wants so much to please you that she really believes she didn't do anything wrong).
But even when they do know fact from fiction, most 5-year-olds don't have the nerve or self-control to keep from blurting out a fib. In fact, kids this age may be scared to tell the truth. "Either they're afraid of punishment or they're afraid of disappointing us," says Jane Nelsen, author of the Positive Discipline book series. The first thing to do, then, is create an environment where your child feels safe telling the truth.
What you can do
Avoid labels. Don't call your kindergartner a liar. It'll only make her defensive, and over time she may start to believe in and live up (or down) to the label. Instead, let her know that you don't like lies, but you still love her – no matter what she'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." This lets her know you don't approve of her behavior, but it also gives her a chance to explain why she took the candy ("I know my sister had some after school, and it isn't fair that I didn't get any").
Don't ask questions when you already know the answer. If you're quite sure that your youngster hasn't cleaned her room, resist the urge to ask, "Did you clean up yet?" says Jerry L. Wyckoff, a family therapist and 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 her know that you intend to verify the facts personally. This way, you're able to deal with one issue – her responsibility to complete her chore – without inviting a lie as well. If you do catch her 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 youngster is fibbing. Your kindergartner cheated big-time while playing Connect Four, and then denies doing anything wrong. Instead of leaping to the podium to give a lecture, prompt her with, "I know it was really important for you to win that game." Then let her talk about why she wanted to win so badly. Afterward, the two of you can discuss other ways to improve her game and also why fair play is important.
Praise truth-telling. When your child tells the truth, reward her with praise. Especially if she's been caught lying in the past, she'll feel great about herself when she 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 she 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 kindergartner that lying doesn't work.We all lapse, and children are no exception. If your child vigorously denies knocking over and breaking the vase with her new ball, voice your view of the facts – "It sounds to me like you wish you hadn't broken the vase" – and then give her a way to make up for her behavior (by having her help you clean up the mess and glue the vase back together, for instance). She'll learn that lying didn't make her any less accountable.
Keep your cool. It's the most natural thing in the world to feel angry and disappointed if you catch your 5-year-old in a lie, and to try to underscore the seriousness of the issue by yelling and punishing her. Still, a rational and just reaction will do more to teach her to do the right thing. "Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, first we have to make them feel worse?" says Jane Nelsen. "Most punishment comes out of anger – and then we've taken the child totally out of any learning mode, because now she's feeling defensive or afraid."
Set a good example. The best way to teach honesty is to be honest. Avoid lying to your kindergartner, even about difficult subjects such as illness, death, or divorce. Even a 5-year-old can sense the dishonesty in euphemisms about Uncle Ted's drinking habits, for instance. And remember what she's learning if she hears you call in sick for work when you're fine or lie about her age so you can save a few dollars on her amusement park admission. Honesty does have a price, and it's worth paying it now.
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