Emily has a pet dragon.

Her dragon is purple with light blue wings. Emily’s dragon is so big you cannot begin to imagine how big it is, but it also goes to school with her in her schoolbag. Emily’s dragon eats all of the fruit in her lunchbox even though Emily’s teacher has caught Emily tipping her fruit into the bin during fruit break on several occasions. It was Emily’s dragon. Emily looked me in the eye and told me so.

Is Emily telling the truth?

One of the wonderful things about toddlers is that the concept of lying is fairly foreign to them. Ask a toddler if they were running around in the house when they bumped the fish bowl and sent their pet fish to early grave and they will probably say: “I did”. However, this does not last long. Not telling the truth, the habit which follows, unfortunately lasts considerably longer.

So how do we manage the issue of telling the truth?

Firstly, I believe that it’s important to distinguish between deliberately misleading others and make-believe.

Make-believe and pretend play is completely appropriate in young children. It is actually something of a developmental milestone that psychologists look for in the course of a healthy, typical childhood.

As such, Emily’s pet dragon is completely appropriate. Such play should be engaged with in a playful way. However, it doesn’t hurt to label such play as “pretend” and to be mindful of how much preferred attention we give our child’s pretend play over the everyday stories of their typical day.

However, Emily insisting that her pet dragon is eating her fruit at fruit break when she is quite clearly disposing of the evidence herself is another matter.

The temptation can be in such circumstances is to persist in running our child through a thorough interrogation where we lay our evidence on the table and threaten severe consequences for not fessing up to the truth. In Emily’s case I can tell you that she did not bat an eye lid as she looked straight back at her parents and insisted with great indignation that her pet dragon was the culprit here. But these interrogations are problematic in a number of ways. Firstly, they create a dynamic which says to our children that we do not trust them, secondly, they teach our children how to be good defense lawyers, and thirdly, they let our children know how we found out that they were not telling the truth, which, in turn, provides them with the heads up on how to cover their tracks more effectively next time.

A better approach to take with children if you feel that their story is pretty fishy, is to give them only one occasion to correct what they have said. At this occasion you remind your child that the truth always comes out and that if you find out that they were lying to you, you will be very upset and consequences will follow. If they continue to insist with their lie, accept it and move on. It will not be long before their conscience gets the better of them and they come clean or, more often, something pops up that exposes the truth. When the truth does come to the surface, do not harp on about how you know at this point, just share your disappointment and administer a firm and appropriate consequence.

Alternatively, if you are certain that they are lying, tell them that you know that they are lying, give them one last chance to come clean and then administer a firm consequence. Never divulge how you found out, even if you saw it firsthand, just tell them that you know. What is most important is that your child learns that lies always get found out, not how to cover their tracks next time.

The goal here is build trust in your relationship not to create a Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty style relationship.

If you do get caught in the cat and mouse game it will not be long before they become so good at it that you won’t be able to trust each other at all.

So start with the pet dragon.