"My son has a great imagination, but where do I draw the line between it and lying?" a sincere parent asked. A dilemma of parenthood: a wild story here, a crazy answer there, a child fueled by imagination spouts unbelievable tales, and parents, wanting to encourage the child's creative and imaginative processes, are often unsure of where imagination ends and lying begins. How do parents teach disapproval of lying and acceptance of imagination? It is a fine line, but one that can be drawn with clarity.
In The Wall Street Journal health article "The Power of Magical Thinking," Shirley S. Wang explains, "For years, imagination was thought of as a way for children to escape from reality, and once they reached a certain age, it was believed they would push fantasy aside and deal with the real world. But, increasingly, child-development experts are recognizing the importance of imagination and the role it plays in understanding reality. Imagination is necessary for learning about people and events we don't directly experience, such as history or events on the other side of the world. For young kids, it allows them to ponder the future, such as what they want to do when they grow up." Paul Harris, development psychologist and a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education who studies imagination, states, "Whenever you think about the Civil War or the Roman Empire or possibly God, you're using your imagination. The imagination is vital for contemplating reality, not just those things we take to be fantasy." Thus, not only the acceptance of imagination, but the necessity for it has become apparent. So parents should become imagination enhancers. They should not only encourage imagination, but stimulate and participate in it.
Karen Stephens, specializing in early childhood development, explains in her article "Imagination and Fantasy in Early Childhood," that "children who regularly engage in plentiful creative, imaginary play do indeed excel in the mental skill referred to as 'executive functioning.' That term-'executive function'-refers to mental processes through which children learn to regulate and control their own 'knee-jerk' impulses and emotional reactions. It means they gradually learn to think and control behavior before they act inappropriately. They gain competence in mentally solving problems so they learn to behave reliably within acceptable social rules and conduct. When children's executive functions are well developed, children aren't as dependent on 'outside' authority figures to monitor and enforce rules and limits for appropriate behavior or social participation. In other words, children learn to internally 'police' their own behavior so others don't have to. Imaginative play gives children practice with independent, autonomous thinking, so they gradually develop decision-making skills and master self-discipline."
The benefits of a developed imagination are clear, but when do parents intrude into fantasy and interject reality? Discerning between fantasy and reality is a milestone for every developing child. Before age 2, children's behavior is mostly concrete. As the wiring in the brain progresses, they begin to develop the imaginative process far more; blocks become cars, couches become airplanes, plastic bracelets become jewels, etc.; the child must figure out the difference between real and pretend. Sometimes, they will need parents' help in making the distinctions.
In the Parenting.com article "Imaginations vs. Reality," Paul Harris, Ph.D., author of The Work of the Imagination, says, "Some children are straightforward and rational; others allow their fantasies to run away with them." Harris remembers when his 7-year-old son had trouble going to sleep because he was conjuring up images of spiders. "I told him, I'm certain there are no tarantulas in this house,'" says Harris. His son wasn't reassured, so Harris tried another approach. "I asked him, 'Is it because when you think about tarantulas they're scary?' and he said, 'Yes, that's it.'" Talking about the scary image may help it to dissipate.
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., coauthor of Einstein Never Used Flashcards, explains, "Children need to grapple with separating what's real from what they see. For example, when seeing a mask on someone, is it the mask that defines this person, or is it the face, voice and personality underneath the mask? This sophisticated line of thinking is usually out of the realm of toddlers," Hirsh-Pasek says. "Once kids have the memory and experience to understand that things aren't always as they appear, usually by age 5, costume transformations aren't as frightening." Also important to note, "Even when children are old enough to understand the difference between real and pretend, they sometimes lose sight of it when they are in play mode, says Susan Engel, Ph.D., author of Real Kids. "It becomes unimportant," she stresses.
As children develop, so does their imagination and creativity, and in the midst of all those images and pretend worlds, children must learn to distinguish what is real and where their imaginations are best applied and limited. Along the way, parents are the observers of some hysterical and entertaining behavior. They are granted front-row seats to a world never discovered before and as unique as the child exploring it. If parents allow themselves the luxury, they will find awe and wonder at the places their children visit and the development that comes as a result. They will also be amused by the world's greatest actors and playwrights under their own roofs. But the challenge still comes in teaching where imagination belongs and where personal responsibility lies.
"Lying is actually typical, age-appropriate behavior for children throughout certain stages of childhood," says Barb Hacker, in her article "Children and Lying." She says, "Children lie for various reasons. Lying is convenient. Many children will not want to stop their play to do something mundane, like wash hands, so they will lie and say they already did. Lying is sometimes used to avoid taking responsibility for a transgression. Nobody wants to get in trouble. A child will sometimes lie to avoid punishment. Lying is a form of wishful thinking. Children sometimes create stories that are exaggerations of their own life to make it sound more exciting."
Honesty is the basis for trusting relationships. Children need to understand that trust is broken and relationships suffer when they tell lies. So it becomes the parents' responsibility to guide the child into reality and teach that honesty is expected and personal responsibility upheld. Acknowledging when a lie is told helps children know it is not acceptable. Dealing with it according to household standards will aid the child in remembering when fantasy and reality should not be mixed. Perhaps the best way to teach honesty is by modeling it; being honest to children, as well as others, sets a guideline for children to emulate.
As children progress through childhood, it is acceptable for parents to acknowledge and note when children are using their imagination. "That was a great story." "Where did that happen: in your room, at school, or in your mind?" "You have a great imagination." Conversing about imagination helps children further define it and its place in reality. Giving children approval for their imagination is a great tool in stimulating it, and teaching children to value honesty and personal responsibilities will help draw the line between fantasy and reality.
The "Lying King" Storytelling Game
By playing The Lying King Game, children learn how to distinguish reality from fantasy. In addition, they develop critical listening, thinking, body language interpretation, and observation skills. (This storytelling game is good for two or more people.)
- Player 1 tells a story. It can be "true" or "false" (something that really occurred, or something that is made up).
- Player 2 is the Lying King. The Lying King loves lies and will roar if he or she thinks the story is false, or say "naah" if true.
- If the Lying King is right, the Lying King gets a point; if not, the Storyteller gets a point.
- Switch so the Lying King becomes the Storyteller and the Storyteller becomes the Lying King. Tell another story.
- Switch again and again until one player has three points.
- Whoever gets three points first wins and is crowned the Lying King.
While lying is a normal aspect of growing up, that does not mean it should be dismissed. Here are some strategies that you can use to help your child develop a better understanding of truthfulness:
Model the behavior you expect to see in your child. If we want to foster a trusting, self-regulating child who cares about his own welfare and that of others, we have to do it the hard way: by being trusting, self-regulating and respectful adults.
Cool down before doing anything. The calmer you are, the better you'll communicate. The first step is to convey the message that a behavior - stealing, for example - is wrong. Then address why your child lied about what he did. Remember that some children will lie to avoid anger even more than to avoid punishment.
Consider the goal of your child's lie. Was he trying to avoid punishment? Perhaps he was frightened by the consequences of what he did and of making a mistake. What might he be feeling? Anxious, guilty, ashamed, scared? There is always a motive and meaning for what children tell us. It won't hurt to ask yourself what your child is gaining by telling a lie.
Point out the logical consequences of lying. Young children are very interested in the story of the boy who cried wolf so often that, when the boy really needed help, nobody paid any attention. When a child is able to change her story and tell you the truth, let her know that you are glad she was able to do so. This will reinforce her confidence and make it easier for her to tell the truth the next time.
In the long run, the most effective solution is to try to discern what message the child is trying to convey with his lie. Occasionally, lying is a sign that a child needs more attention or, perhaps, stronger limits on daily activities. Longer-term strategies may be to create structured routines (for example, going to bed on time after a favorite read-aloud, or a limited amount of television time) to increase his sense of security within the family.