“We can keep this just between us, ok?”
Seems innocent enough, right? Sneaking a cookie before dinner, a cartoon on a school day. No one needs to know, right?
Sometimes adults unintentionally reenforce children’s dishonesty by initiating sweet, playful secrets. “Ok, but just this once, and don’t tell your mom.”
As adults, this may feel like a special bonding moment, or may simply come from pure exhaustion engaging in power struggles with children want something very intensely. However, it undermines the routines and boundaries we work so hard to set for our young little ones. While adults may have a clear sense when to deviate from expectations or when a decision off course is harmless. Children lack the ability to distinguish when it’s ok to omit a detail or make an exception to a rule.
Here are the additional risks this can pose for children when we encourage little white lies or omissions:
- Develops their ability to manipulate and deceive.
- Robs them of developing integrity and decision making skills.
- Builds mistrust in their relationships.
- Results in children withholding big or essential information.
- Reduces children’s self-trust and trust in others.
- Avoids accountability and responsibility.
When adults whom children trust model and reinforce lying, children also learn this as an acceptable and often favored act in social relationships.
Here’s what we can do instead:
- Be honest.
- Own your mistakes.
- Explain when you make exceptions.
- Include children in decision making.
- Apologize when you model an unhealthy habit like lying or omitting.
- Acknowledge when children display exercising integrity.
- Encourage other adults in their lives to avoid the common pitfall of “just between us”.
While a moment may seem harmless, there are no little lies. When children are learning how to tell little lies, they are also learning how to tell big lies. In order to foster healthy relationships based on integrity and trust, it is necessary to examine our modeling and interactions as adults to ensure our actions truly match our hopes and expectations for children.
It’s also important to recognize that children are still developing their understanding of pretend and reality. They are still navigating when to say what they hope for and what actually occurred. For that reason, when children say something untrue, depending on their age and development, it may not be cause for concern.
More resources on responding to lying and dishonesty in early childhood: