As adults we understand that Father Christmas is a fiction. But it's a magical thing for a child to believe in, and we actively encourage the development of such beliefs. Not only are they exciting, but they are an essential part of growing up and starting to understand the difference between 'untruths' - whether that's talking animals in cartoons and books, or telling a 'white lie' to ease an awkward social situation.
As children get older they begin to appreciate the difference between fact and fiction. This is a gradual process and one where adult guidance is needed. 'There is a fine line between imagination and lies,' says Jennie Lindon, psychologist and early years consultant. 'It is a big thing for young children to realise and there is a blurry boundary between the two. Inadvertently, adults can also blur the boundary.
'Some children have difficulties distinguishing flights of imagination from what they wish to be true. This can slide into telling something that is not true, such as wishing that they had a big brother to actually telling several people that they have got a big brother. Three- and four-year-olds can, for example, truly believe that they did not break a cup because they really wish that they hadn't.
'It is more when a child is four or five that they have more of a grasp on what is true. Without help, some people never quite get the boundary and truly believe what they say to be true. It is a work in progress for young children.'
Tina Bruce, honorary visiting professor at Roehampton University, says, 'Practitioners should not be judgmental when children are lying; they are not being evil. It is more that they are experimenting with the truth.'
Children can tell untruths for many reasons:
- They genuinely believe what they have said and have convinced themselves of it - they really did see fairies at the bottom of the garden
- To try to avoid getting into trouble and being punished
- If their well-being is low, they may lie to make their life appear better than it is - for example, pretending that the bracelet is theirs because they feel it gives them social status.
Theory of mind
'We need to remember that young children think in different ways to adults - it's not just that they know less,' says Julian Grenier, head of the Kate Greenaway Nursery School and Children's Centre in London.
'One of the important things that young children are exploring is the notion that other people have their own thoughts and perspectives. Sometimes children test this out, and it's more like an experiment or test on their part than a lie, which is calculated to deceive.
'In other words, when a child says she hasn't done something, which you know full well she has, one of the things that is happening is that the child is testing out ideas of power, and the separateness of people. She is finding out whether something will "become true" because she says it, and testing whether another person can think something different to what she wants. I don't mean testing in a conscious or planned way - this happens quite unconsciously.'
It is only when a child has developed theory of mind, when they can 'get inside' someone else's head and know that they do not necessarily think and feel the same as they do, that they can understand the concept of telling lies.
'Cause and effect is also crucial to telling lies,' says Tina Bruce. 'Piaget told a story to eight- and nine-year-olds about a child who is asked to make tea for their parents and accidentally breaks a cup. He also told a story of a child who plays with the crockery despite being told not to, but does not break anything. The children are then asked who is naughty. They often answered "the one who broke the cup", because they do not understand the cause and effect.
'What is right and what is wrong is huge. We explore issues of right and wrong all our lives and make decisions. At the base of our decision is cause and effect, and we make decisions based on what would cause most harm.'
How to react
When helping children to learn about telling the truth, it is important to confine discussions to real situations; otherwise it is an abstract concept that is difficult to understand.
'A child will not get real thought and real feeling if the situations are taken out of context. Programme boxes of feelings based around emotional intelligence are unrelated to real life,' says Professor Bruce. She also warns against star charts and sticker rewards. 'These do not help the development of children to be motivated to be truthful - they are just a short and sharp reaction,' she says.
The focus should be on encouraging a child to tell the truth, rather than backing them into a corner. If a child knows that they are going to be in trouble, it is likely that they will tell a lie. For example, instead of demanding whether they ate the last biscuit when you know that they did, suggest that it would have been nicer for them to have shared it with a friend. Next time the child is in that situation they will have a strategy to consider.
Also, avoid asking a child whether they are lying, or actually telling them that they are a liar. Jennie Lindon suggests going for a description rather than a label. 'You can say that you have seen that they have trouble telling the truth sometimes and owning up to things when they know they have done something that they shouldn't. You need to give children an exit route or otherwise children will insist that it is true, go silent or burst into tears.
'For older children of four, five or six years old, have a gentle supportive chat about what they should do next time and then help them decide what to do.'
Julian Grenier agrees. 'In order to help children to develop and be honest, truthful people,' he says, 'I would suggest that adults retain a clear grip on what happened, and tell this to a child who lies to them. I would say it clearly and confidently, without accusing the child of being a liar or doing anything else that is too emotional or disproportionate.
'I think that adults should be careful to ensure that children are not afraid of telling the truth, because there will be unpleasant consequences beyond what the child can bear. I think children should always be praised for telling the truth and for the times when they show moral courage by admitting to doing something wrong.
'Finally, children learn a great deal from how they see the adults around them behave. When children see adults owning up to mistakes and apologising for them, they learn a powerful lesson. Yet how many young children are effectively in an environment where it appears that the adults are almost like gods, and never get things wrong or own up to making mistakes?'
- Practitioners should set a good example themselves by being honest and showing consideration for other people's feelings.
- When you know that what a child is saying is untrue, state with certainty what the truth, is rather than risk the situation escalating into a battle of wills.
- Be careful not to set up situations where children have to own up in front of others. This may lead them to lie out of lack of confidence, which will not help their development.
- Avoid labelling a child, such as calling them a liar.
- Praise a child who has told the truth and acknowledge that it may not have been an easy thing to do.
- Do not resort to using rewards such as sticker systems or star charts - reward a child with thanks.
- Confine discussions about honesty to real situations so that a child can understand the cause and effect, rather than, for example, chanting 'We always tell the truth' in circle time.