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How to Interrogate a Child You’re Pretty Sure is Lying

A child’s first lies are something to celebrate. Misdirection is an indication of brain development critical to the social and intellectual function of healthy (and occasionally dishonest) adults. With every lie, a young child solidifies their understanding of that other people have different thoughts and experiences than they do. Being untruthful also requires metacognition, or the ability to think about thinking. This usually starts coalescing around age 4, which means that older toddlers can’t always be trusted. They can, however, almost always be found out by a skilled parent-turned-interrogator. The key, experts explain, is to create a space in which they can admit guilt or solve the problems they create.

Sarah Wilson, a Portland, Oregon-based family and child counselor, explains that a child’s intentions are very rarely steeped in pure unadulterated evil. Often, she notes, lies are rooted in a desire to please. It’s a parent’s job them to help a kid understand that honesty would please them more.

“A lot of times we set up scenarios that really encourage our kids to lie to us. We ask questions in a way that puts kids in a place of self-incrimination where they can’t plead the fifth,” says Wilson. “Going from empathy to teaching to repair, that’s a process that doesn’t really leave much room for lying. A kid wouldn’t feel the need to lie if they’re feeling understood and if the consequence was around understanding behavior and repairing wounds.

The parental instinct is to get to the root of a problem, to badger the kid with “why, why, why” is the adult equivalent of the child asking endless questions about the reason frogs are green. Instead, Wilson says, parents can ditch the endless questions and create a situation where kids are rewarded for telling the truth, even if that reward is just a simple, “I really appreciate you being honest with me.”

“With small children, you can’t browbeat them,” says Michigan-based Head Start supervisor Kelda Willson. “You…

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