Dear Dr. Debbie,
I confronted my 4-year-old about getting into a tub of pink frosting I had put on the counter waiting for a cake to cool. We were expecting family for a birthday dinner for our 2-year-old. Even though I could see the evidence on her finger and face, she wouldn’t admit to the crime. I think I was more upset that she couldn’t tell me the truth than that she had helped herself to a high sugar load.
Why would she lie to me? I don’t hit or give harsh punishments. Please tell me this isn’t a sign of a deceitful personality.
Nothing But the Truth
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Sounds like normal behavior to me.
At her stage of moral development, your 4-year-old is reacting to a challenge against her good name. It is so important to preschoolers to appear favorably to their parents and other caregivers that they cannot stand for any flaws or foibles to show.
In the safekeeping of her fragile self-esteem, a child younger than 5 will do and say whatever she thinks will keep her in a good light. Of course, sometimes she fails at this and the awful truth is exposed. The child feels like a wretched person — she did eat the frosting, she did annoy her mother, furthermore, the cake awaiting its topping might not turn out as well as it could have. To protect herself against horrible feelings about herself, she has to hope that the “truth” she is trying to put in front of you will be accepted.
Rather than confront her with a choice of self-incrimination or lying, comment calmly about the evidence that is as plain as the frosting on her face and help her to understand why snacking on frosting is not a good idea.
Early Moral Development
By age 2, a child has a good enough grasp of reality to recognize the ridiculous. Daddy doesn’t sleep in the baby’s bed. A cooking pot makes a silly hat. But take her to see her favorite television character “live” at the mall, and she readily believes the farce. Everything is real to her, therefore there is no such thing as a lie.
She is surprised, and sometimes amused, by your disapproval of her actions, but usually she is not concerned with covering up her misdeeds.
By age 4, a child develops the ability to imagine someone else’s opinion of her. She has stored up a memory bank of the things she does that please or displease you, and she is getting pretty good at predicting your reactions. She can’t, however, always remember all the rules nor stop herself from temptations.
When you confront her about finger marks in the frosting, she is wise enough to anticipate that a guilty plea will get her a scolding or worse. Harsh words from her beloved grownup make her feel awful about herself. So given a choice, she chooses to stay in your good graces. Note that when you ask if she got into the frosting — instead of stating that there is frosting on her finger and face — you are giving her the choice of confessing or not confessing. Refrain from such interrogations. Keep your attention on the problem at hand (less frosting than you may need to cover the cake and or the risk of a tummy ache), and enlist her help in repairing the damages. She could help you rework your design with some fresh fruit or nuts. She could choose a healthy snack to tide her over until dinnertime.
Focus on guiding or diverting young children to appropriate behaviors. Save your extreme reactions for when, despite your vigilant supervision, one heads for the electric outlet with the house keys. Even then, show more concern that she put herself in harm’s way than that she has angered you. This approach will help your future teenagers come to you when they find themselves in trouble rather than trying as best they can to keep it from you. If they never learn to associate wrong actions with your wrath, they are less likely to feel they have to hide their errors from you.
“Misbehavior” has many natural causes: impulsiveness, jealousy, excitement, and other normal conditions of childhood. “Dishonesty” is a young child’s way of honestly demonstrating that they can’t handle this particular truth. No need to frame it with criminal intent.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
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What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]jecoannapolis.com.