All parents want their kids to be honest. They so want this that the first time they perceive their children telling a lie, it can be astonishing and somewhat, frightening.
I remember years ago, a young mom came up to me in tears. She told me her daughter at the age of 3 was a chronic liar. She had explained to me she had explained to her daughter the importance of telling the truth; she had yelled at her, cried over her, prayed over her and punished her and STILL, her preschooler was a liar. This mom was sure her daughter would turn out to be a criminal one day.
Now, having teenagers at the time, I understood her fear, but I also knew she was blowing this way out of proportion. Partly because you can’t predict the end of the story right at the beginning of it – her daughter was 3. Give the kid a break! And, partly, because she didn’t understand child development. What did this mom need to know?
Preschoolers blur the lines when it comes to reality versus fantasy. A lot of times, they believe something is real because they think it. “It must be real if it is in my head!” Reality is what is obvious to them and the stories in my head are obviously true, because they are in my head. Obviously!
But during the ages of 3 – 5, children begin to have an awakening in which they realize that they can influence their thoughts. Their thoughts are something they can control and upon which they have a strong effect. This development is called theory of mind, which is an emerging awareness of mental processes and states of both themselves and others (Piaget). Let’s see how “thinking about thinking” helps us have realistic expectations of children knowing the difference between reality and fantasy and what that has to do with truth-telling.
Between ages 2 – 3, children have some understanding that they can play a trick on someone by deceiving them. They can hide a ball in one place and then with giggles, when you ask where the ball is, tell you it is someplace else. Here, they are pretending with you. At about age 3, children may understand that what they believe is false. They begin to enjoy surprises because they believed one thing, but then something else happened or appeared that they weren’t expecting. They understand they were wrong, but they don’t understand that their wrong belief influenced their behavior. Not only do they not understand that what they think has a big impact on what they do, only about 75% of 3-year-olds can discern the difference between just making a mistake versus telling a lie (if it is obvious). “Being wrong” is hard for them to grasp until ages 4 – 5. All in all, until age 5, many preschoolers aren’t completely sure what is a mistake, what is a lie, what is reality, and what is fantasy. They are in process of figuring out their world.
To distinguish between appearance and reality, a child must refer to two conflicting mental representations at the same time. If something is right in front of them, children can see the differences. But, if you ask them to just think about a comparison of things or situations, not until about five (5) or six (6) do children understand consistently the distinction between what SEEMS to be and what IS. Children who are asked to pretend that a sponge was a rock or a crayon was a candle, did better when they are the one asked to get someone else to believe something false (let’s get someone else to believe the sponge is a rock) OR when asked to use it in a pretend way (let’s put the crayon candle on the cake). They didn’t do so well when they had to be the pretenders without actually being able to see it or do it. Discernment in their thinking doesn’t really arrive until they are ready for the school age years, starting with Kindergarten.
We have to come to the conclusion that automatically punishing 3-year-olds for lying is not our best option for, in fact, they may not be lying. They may not be able to tell you the truth because they don’t recognize what truth is. To adults, it may seem like lying but in truth, it isn’t. Punishing children for mistakes, not discerning between reality and fantasy, or for children merely being children by pretending is harmful as they won’t understand why they are being punished and will then attribute the punishment to themselves (they must be bad) since they didn’t do something bad. They come to doubt themselves in ways that can stunt their imagination and creativity as well as create false guilt which complicates explaining to them what true confession and repentance over sincere guilt really is.
Dear Readers, when enjoying preschoolers, James 1:19 should be our guide. My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. We can live this verse out when we take the time to figure out what is really going on in the mind of the child before we jump in with our adult conclusions and punish children when they don’t deserve it.
May the amazing imagination and creative thinking of the 3-year-olds in your life bring you joy, whether they are in your home, your community, or your church.
Blessings abundant. Fondly, Elizabeth