FAQ’s: Talking to our children about getting to the truth
Our world seems to be increasingly faced with a blurred view of fact versus fiction (versus opinion) and truth versus lies. Several current events and the advent of the holidays makes the general issue of truth and reality a relevant one, and particularly important, when it comes to our children. All things considered, wouldn’t we want to have a sensible way to approach the conversation with our little ones?
When tackling the subject as a parent, one encounters different flavors of the question of “truth” and “reality”. One of them is about lying to our children, its ethical implications and practical consequences: for example, whether or not we should push falsehoods onto our children about cultural myths (e.g. Easter Bunny) and other societal taboos. Another one is about how we deal with our children lying to us and to others: what our policy should be. A third one, and not the least important, is the question of what is real and what is not.
We hope our answers to the following FAQ’s are helpful. As always we look forward to your comments and/or suggestions and to hear about your best practices:
FAQ#1: The Santa Claus question. It is a lie…so should we not tell it to our children?
While some people take a hard line and advocate that these falsehoods should indeed be exposed to children from an early age, the most accepted approach seems to be where “sharing the world of fantasy characters with our children is not a lie, but rather a playful way of storytelling and connecting as a family to fun events” 2. Some authors even suggest that the process of discovering the truth about such myths on their own may be beneficial to kids4. It is a different story, however, if your kid asks you point blank if Santa is real. Obviously at that point your kid is already asking the right questions – probably time to help him or her discover the truth. Kids need to know they can trust mom and dad to tell them the truth2. In any event, by the age of eight most children will have already let go of these fantasies, but will likely remember fondly the happy years of imagination2.
FAQ#2: What about when bad stuff happens - like the death of someone our kids know or a pet? Should we tell the truth?
Some parents will opt for distorting or omitting facts in order to protect their children from distress. The most accepted view seems to be that creating a story around a real event can make the problem worse. When it comes to death or illness, it is apparently better for children to know the truth, so they understand the behaviors of the adults around them2. Some suggest that children should have some understanding of sickness or death, before it actually affects their own lives. When telling a child that someone has died, make sure the word 'died' is used - children do not understand euphemisms. In the context of facing the realities of our existence, “children do not need protection, they need competent guidance and satisfactory answers to their questions”2.
FAQ#3: We don’t want our children to be liars. How should we react when we catch our little one in a lie?
When your little one lies, remember that this is not necessarily a crisis of morals. Getting outraged is probably not helpful. Telling a lie can be simply your kid's way of getting what he wants. “It also doesn't help to investigate his story like a detective”. Not to say that this should go without sanctions, but you don’t really want to make him feel that he can't be trusted. Some argue that pressuring your child can cause him to withhold more the truth next time3.
We should model the behavior we expect to see in our child. So let’s calm down before doing anything. First of all, convey the message that a behavior — stealing, for instance — is wrong. Then, address why your child lied. Mention consequences that will help the development of conscience – also point out the logical consequences of lying. Tell the story of the boy who cried wolf so often that, when the boy really needed help, nobody came, etc. (you know the story…). When your child changes the story and tells you the truth, express your satisfaction. This will make it easier for your child to tell the truth the next time3.
Some lie busters:
FAQ#4. Is lying normal? Why do children lie?
It is normal. Parents should view lying as a part of our children's emotional and intellectual development. Telling lies doesn't mean our kid will have a life of serious behavioral problems. Studies show that lying plays a positive role in normal development. “Essential human skills — independence, perspective taking, and emotional control — are the same skills that enable children to lie”.3
There is a developmental progression to lying. At the first level (2 and 3 years old), the child wants to achieve a goal or reward by saying something that he knows (or believes) is false. The intention is to affect your behavior — for instance, to avoid punishment or receive a reward.3
Around age 3, wishes and imagination often get mixed up with reality. Sometimes your child will start to tell a story, and then he will just start adding content to match ideas he has in his head. At this stage, children might not consider what you will actually think about either their statement or their intention. So they are pretty bad liars. They may also fail to do obvious things, such as covering their tracks to hide the lie.3
Around age 4, children probably know the difference between lying and telling the truth — and they know lying is wrong. By age 4 or 5, they understand that you will interpret and evaluate a statement in the light of your own existing knowledge.3
FAQ#5: Young kids don’t know the difference between reality and fantasy – when and how does that transition occur?
Babies and young toddlers cannot reliably distinguish between what's real and what's pretend.1 At around two years of age, a child supposedly develops the “brain circuitry” that allows him to hold a block and imagine it's a car, for example.1 “Older toddlers know what's real when they're playing but often ignore it. Fiction is simply more fun”.1
Much of the information that little kids are exposed to is factual, like the names of animals, but obviously some of it is fictional too, such as the existence of the Easter Bunny. Studies have found that by the age of 4, children learn to “use the context in which new information is presented to distinguish between fact and fiction”.5 This is important, because it means they start gauging credibility.
According to research at the University of Texas at Austin, children can distinguish between reality and fantasy, somewhere between the ages of 3 and 5.
FAQ#6: Since young children don’t know the difference between reality and fantasy –how can parents help?
Parents play a very important role in this process. First of all, we ought to be aware of how emotions can influence our children’s fantasy-reality judgments. Studies show that 3-5-year-old children are more likely to believe in positive fictional events compared to negative fictional events “i.e., only positive people and events can exist in the real world”. Along the same lines, they are more likely to believe in information from a “nice” person.6 As parents, we should then focus on shedding a positive light on the things we want our children to hold as real.
One specific area where parents can help, and where children benefit from learning the difference between fantasy and reality is with nighttime fears. Research shows that understanding the difference between fantasy and reality helps children overcome their nighttime (irrational) fears.7
Not unlike with other challenges to reality, children should also be educated about the fictional nature of much of what's on TV and digital.1 But maintaining a good balance is also crucial, so as parents we really need to embrace pretend-play. Ironically, “pretend play lets kids figure out the real world of emotions, relationships, and ideas”.1