Ages & Stages: Honesty

Young children can have difficulty sorting fantasy from reality.

  • Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K

Stage by Stage 3 - 4

  • Three-year-olds often talk about imaginary events as if they had occurred, finding much pleasure in the "tall tale."
  • Threes are capable of being honest, even when telling the truth does not work to their advantage.
  • Four-year-olds can be masters of exaggeration.

Stage by Stage 5 - 6  

  • Five- and 6-year-olds often confuse reality and magical thinking.
  • Tale telling by fives and sixes is common at this stage of development.
  • Children of this age are capable of using reasoning to try to clarify the truth about events and situations.

3 to 4 Working Toward Honesty  by Susan A. Miller Ed.D.

Three-year-old Edwardo is asked by his teacher Mrs. Fanger, "Why did you take the Leggos home in your backpack?" Confused, he says, "I didn't." Concerned, his mom replies, "Edwardo, you are not telling the truth. Here they are." Threes are not intentionally dishonest. Their perception of things is simply different from that of adults. Edwardo takes his artwork home in his backpack, so of course he assumes it's perfectly all right to take home the little structure that he created too.

"Santa Claus watches to see if you are naughty or nice." "Eating Crunch-O cereal makes you strong." Preschoolers are bombarded regularly by such deceptions or "little white lies" from well-meaning adults and advertisements. Because they are still in the process of developing conscience and morality, it is sometimes difficult for preschoolers to sort out fantasy from reality or to know what is true.

Sometimes 3-year-olds, particularly those who love silly language and stories, wish that something might happen and talk about it as if it has occurred. In fact, they derive as much pleasure from the silliness of their own stories as the listener does!

On the other hand, threes can be very honest-even when it means admitting to behaviors that are negative as well as positive. A 3-year-old might volunteer to a teacher that he hit another child who took his truck. The child's eagerness to please his teacher by providing an explanation, and his desire to protect his own territory, can result in simple, direct honesty.

Fours delight in making up BIG stories with lots of exaggerations. They find it fun to fantasize and don't think of it as lying. For instance, Kiahiem explains to his buddy Malcolm, "I went fishing with my Dad and we caught a huge shark." Opening his arms wide, Malcolm retorts, "Yeah, well we got a gigantic whale!" When fours tell such a tale and you look like you are buying into it, it will probably become even more outlandish. They seek your favor and will be thrilled if you comment, "YOU did that!" However, if you say it is a "tall tale" and question their honesty, their feelings may be hurt or they may become defensive.

Wanting to be helpful in the teacher's eyes, as well as nudging others to exhibit honest behavior and own up to their misdeeds, 4-year-olds are prone to tattling on each other. Nancy rushes to tell Mrs. Burnett, "Heather spilled the milk on the floor." Fearing the loss of her teacher's approval if she doesn't admit to her accident, yet not wanting to be punished for it, creates a dilemma for Heather. However, when Heather does tell the truth about the spilled milk, Mrs. Burnett thanks her for her honesty and helps her think of ways they can clean it up together.

What You Can Do

  • Model honesty in your actions throughout the day. For example, if you have accidently picked up another teacher's book, think out loud so children can hear how the process works: "I shouldn't keep this book. Miss Barlow will miss it. I will bring this book to her. She will be glad to get her book back."
  • Create simple rules together that children can abide by. When rules seem unrealistic or overwhelming to children, this can lead them to lie about what they are doing or what happened because they are afraid of punishment.
  • Consult with the children to solve problems. Develop a sense of community. Instead of children tattling about who did or didn't do something and giving truthful or untruthful responses, work together. Talk about various consequences.
  • Dramatize situations with puppets. Role play real and fantasy scenarios to help children distinguish what is true and what is make believe. This pretend play will assist them to begin to see things from another person's perspective.
  • Acknowledge children's honesty. Compliment a child on returning a friend's missing bracelet. You might add his name and honest act to a prominently displayed list entitled "good deeds."

5 to 6 I'm Not Lying!  by Ellen Booth Church

"I didn't do it!" There stands 5-year-- old Chloe amidst a huge pile of sand on the floor, shovel in hand, and the tell-tale grains of sand in her socks and shoes. Hhhmmmmm .....

What stage of truth-telling and lying are 5- and 6-year-olds experiencing? They are in that delightful and confusing "twilight zone" between real and magical thinking. These levels of thinking are both still so intertwined that even the child may not be aware of when she crosses over from truth to tale.

"I'm Going to Disney World Too!"

It is normal for 5- and 6-year-old children to tell tales and falsehoods. Some children do this based on emotional needs, such as adjusting to a major life change that may include a new baby at home or a new school. For others, it is the strong desire for something to be true. ("We are moving to a new big house!") They may still believe they can make something become true if they work hard enough on telling the tale. Often, what they are expressing is what they "wish" would happen, not what really has or will occur.

Five- and 6-year-old children may "make up stories" based on self-concept issues. Telling a fib might help a child believe she is part of a budding clique of friends that can develop in kindergarten. Some children may feel the need to always be the best in the class and will do this by embellishing a partially true story. "You should have seen me. I rode my bike all the way around the block alone!" At this stage, honesty is a flexible concept, created to fit the situation. Children know they should tell the truth and own up to their mistakes or actions, but they may not always be able to "do the right thing."

When Is It Lying?

Although they have these great imaginative powers, children at this stage are also capable of being asked to use reasoning to be clear about the truth of things. How can you tell when something is true or not? And, how do you deal with it? Don't worry about it too much. Let a story go by that is too fanciful to be real. More than likely, everyone knows it is not true, and you can all smile about it and maybe even joke about what a great story it is, and wouldn't it be fun if it were true! It is important to empathize with the child's desire for something to be true. And if the child seems receptive, you can let her know that it is okay to want something, but the process of telling the he is not acceptable. For example, you might say, "I know you'd love to have a new scooter, that sounds like so much fun, and it's hard not to have one when some of your friends are talking about theirs. But there are lots of terrific things you can say about yourself. Like the way you make your own wonderful pictures. Now, that's the truth! And it's better to talk about what's true." Accept and acknowledge her struggle between reality and wishful thinking.

Don't confront a child in front of the group. Telling you she broke something or took someone's toy is hard to admit-especially in front of others. So always find a way for the child to be honest with you while still "saving face" within the group. For example, you might mention that accidents can happen, and toys can get broken, or that it's easy to confuse toys and pick up someone else's. Five- and 6-year-olds are good at discussing events after the fact. They can self-reflect about a dishonest situation after the emotions have died down.

Happily, the social/emotional developmental skills of your 5- and 6-year-olds may be expanding to include a deeper awareness of the personal rights and responsibilities of themselves and others, including respect for the property of others. They are also discovering that the consequences of telling a he can be that others don't believe them when they are telling the truth. Use these understandings to help children talk about right and wrong, and practice honesty.

What You Can Do

  • Truthfulness is a reflection of what children see and experience. When you are truthful about your feelings or your own mistakes, they will be too! Tell children how you feel today. Show them when you make a mistake and be light about it!
  • Provide children with appropriate outlets for their emotions, including anger, frustration, sadness, and loneliness. These all can be triggers for lying.
  • Discuss personal rights and responsibilities.
  • Involve children in active problem solving of classroom issues.
  • Talk about the difference between storytelling or imaginative talk that is fun and lying, which can hurt themselves and others.
  • Use literature as a great reservoir of pretend and real stories to discuss and compare. Look for books which have characters that children can empathize with.

  • Subjects:
    Character and Values, Child Development and Behavior, Mental Health, Understanding Self and Others
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