Zwambag: Little white lies

The Motherload

There’s water from one end of the kitchen to the next and a broken glass in the middle of it. I’m not mad. It happens, and honestly? I left my cup where my kids could reach it. Lesson learned, it’s easily cleaned and nobody got hurt. Regardless, I want to understand what happened so I can try to prevent another accident—one where maybe someone WOULD get hurt.

“What happened here?”

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I’m thinking my daughter knocked it over with the ball she is playing with, but it’s possible she was trying to drink from it and dropped it, too. Looking me in the eye, she does something she’s been doing a lot lately. Something that baffles me.  She lies.

“It was Daddy.”

Unlikely story since Daddy is at work.

I’m not going to lie. In moments like this, I don’t even know how to respond. I genuinely can’t understand why she is lying to me or if she expects me to believe it. My instinct is to counter her lie with the truth, but that just makes her dig her heels in further because ultimately she’s feeling invalidated and accused. I try explaining why honesty is important and telling her she won’t get in trouble for telling the truth, which is still an accusation if I’m being frank with myself. I want to react in a way that will end in a twenty-something adult who values honesty… But how do I get from here to there?

This has been happening a lot lately. Sometimes it’s in response to an action she took that she knows she’ll get in trouble for. Other times, it’s a tall tale about something in her life. Sometimes it’s to get out of something she doesn’t want to do (did you wash your hands after using the potty?) and she’ll run back to fix it with a simple challenge (let me smell your hands for soap). Sometimes it’s to get her way. But no matter what, it’s happening with increasing frequency and I’m at a loss.

So, naturally, I went looking for reassurance.

“Is this normal??” I’m asking my friends. Lucky for me, the resounding answer was a big old YES.

One friend reminded me of the movie The Invention of Lying and how in this world where lying doesn’t exist — in fact, the blunt honesty of the characters remind me greatly of young toddlers who have no filter yet — one man dares to not be honest one day. He has an epiphany in a moment of despair and tells the first lie ever. And IT WORKS. He walks out of the bank $800 richer because of it. 

Watching that scene from a completely new perspective, I can’t help but laugh. Is this what happened to my toddler the first time she lied? I honestly don’t even know what the first one was, and I probably had no idea it was a lie at the time. But I bet while she was staring me down one day it DID just dawn on her that she could say what she wished to be true instead of what actually was. And you know what? I probably bought it, causing something to click in her little mind as she walked away victorious. Something in my gut says she walked away with chocolate in hand when this first happened.

The more I research why she’s lying, the more it makes sense. One of the big reasons is that preschoolers are brimming with imagination and have a hard time separating reality from fantasy. Absolutely. I read her fairytales every day. We spend loads of time playing with dolls and figurines, we draw pictures and make up stories, we talk about her imaginary friend and set a place at the table for her, and we encourage imagination at every turn. She is living in this world, and it makes sense that the lines between it and reality are a little blurred.

There’s also a lot of information out there about the fact that a preschooler isn’t necessarily really lying to you, but that they’re simply forgetful and may not remember something you’re asking them about even five minutes later. Considering my child’s very selective and strange memory, I can also accept that she may not remember what happened in one of a million fights she has with her brother in a day. Even if she remembers the random promise of making her star-shaped pancakes from two weeks ago.

Then there is fear of punishment, a desire for power and choice, craving attention and even resentment towards a sibling as potential reasons. One I found really interesting was the idea of wishful thinking — they’re simply saying what the WISH was true and hoping that it might shape reality. I can definitely see that in my daughter on a daily basis. She’s trying to figure out her place in the world and a little wishful thinking is nothing to be ashamed of.

So, what do we as parents do? Well, I’ve decided it comes back to “Does this matter?” If she’s telling a tall tale that has no affect on anything, I humor her. I encourage her creativity and imagination. If it DOES matter, I address it. If it’s wishful thinking, I acknowledge the wish and then gently bring her back to reality. If it’s attention she’s looking for, I give her the attention and then once we’re calm explain the importance of honesty. I’m working harder to model. As a parent, I need to show her honesty by being honest. For example, Needles? I won’t tell her they don’t hurt anymore.

My hope is that by learning to control my own reactions to her lies, I can build the trust with her that is needed so honesty feels perfectly safe and natural as she grows.


Brianne Zwambag is a full-time boo-boo healer, snack artist, janitor, referee, master storyteller and child stylist in Fort St. John, B.C. who sometimes gets a chance to sit down and write about life, mommyhood and the issues that surround it.

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