01/22/2012 01:04 am ET Updated Feb 09, 2012

Children And Lying: What To Do About It

Dear Susan,

My 4-year-old old granddaughter lies regularly. She makes up stories about things that couldn't possibly be true, looking you straight in the face as she tells something that is obviously a lie. I want her to grow up to be an honest person.ᅡᅠWhat can be done?

Pinocchio's Grandma

Dear Pinocchio's Grandma,

There's nothing quite as charming as a straight-faced 4-year-old telling you about the trip they took to the moon on the back of a talking kangaroo while they ate candy that the Easter bunny gave them for the trip. One of the most endearing qualities about children this age is the fact that they have one foot in reality, and one firmly in the world of fantasy. A 4-year-old can look you in the eye and tell you they had nothing to do with that missing piece of cake with a face smeared with chocolate. Instead of scolding your granddaughter for "lying," try these strategies:

Don't use logic as a way to "catch" your granddaughter being dishonest. "No, you didn't talk to Santa on the phone about how granny was naughty for not letting you have candy for dinner!" Enjoy the moments when your little one weaves those far-fetched stories as proof that she is still, thankfully, living at least part-time in the world of her imagination.

Make it clear that some topics require her to be accurate with her facts. Try saying things like, "I know it may be uncomfortable to tell Grandma that you had an accident in your pants, but I have to know, and I promise that I won't get mad." Or "I know it's scary to tell your Daddy that you took your brother's action figure because he wouldn't let you play with it, but I will be less upset if you tell me than if you try to hide it..."

Make it safe for your granddaughter to confess to doing something she shouldn't have done. If she believes that she'll be hurt -- physically or emotionally -- when she does tell you the truth, you will essentially "teach" her that twisting the facts pays off.

Channel some of your child's creative juices into story-telling. Encourage her to narrate into a recorder. This activity will give her the thrill of hearing her imagination take flight. Help her understand that there's a time and a place where it's absolutely fine to play make-believe so she doesn't think that she can never wander in her fantasy world.

Preschoolers need to know that when you say, "Tell me what really happened", they must reach for the truth, but they also have to know that it's safe to reveal it. Just keep in mind that they are still at a stage where the truth is often mixed up with make-believe. So, don't come down too hard when your granddaughter tries to convince you that the fairies really did give her the chocolate bar that looks very much like the one that's missing from your purse!

Yours in parenting support,

Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.