EXPERT Q&A

Are telling tall tales normal?

A parent inquires on whether her son telling elaborate stories is him exercising his imagination or lying. Family counselor Shenley Seabrook, shares insights.

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Question

I learned recently that my son has been telling tall tales! He’s telling his friends at school that he is a pilot and his sister is a real-life unicorn. He makes these stories so believable that his friends think they’re all true. I’m glad he’s using his imagination and it all seems pretty harmless, but I want to be sure we don’t have a con artist in the making! And we also want to discourage lying. How do we best navigate this with our son?

Answer

The good news here is that tall tales are totally normal! They are actually developmentally appropriate for preschool-age children and signify a milestone in their ability to think and reason. As early as age 2, some children realize that they can say they did not eat the cookie when, in fact, they have a face full of chocolate. Preschool is typically the age we start to hear tall tales.

I think it’s important to point out the distinction (albeit a small one) between lying and telling tall tales. Lying is an attempt to deceive while telling a tall tale is an attempt to either exaggerate the truth or make up a story. Imagination plays a big role in these tales, so you are correct about that. Children who tell tall tales are typically trying to either impress their audience (such as friends and classmates) or are engaging in wishful thinking. It’s quite possible your son thinks being a pilot is impressive and really does wish his sister were a unicorn! Because really, how cool would that be!?

Here are some tips on how to navigate tall tales with young children.

  1. Praise truth telling. When your child retells a story correctly or tells the truth about something, be sure to provide them with praise, such as, “Yes, that’s exactly what happened. Great job telling that story! It was super interesting.”
  2. Teach reality versus fantasy. Younger children typically don’t have a great concept of reality versus fantasy yet, so that one can be tough. However, some ways you can teach this skill are to play games that include fantasy items, then asking questions like, “Could that happen in real life?” or “Is that something that can really happen, or is it just pretend?”
  3. Be a good role model. This one can be tough. As caregivers, sometimes we feel as though we have to tell little white lies. “The store was all out of ice cream, honey” or “Skipping naps is against the law” might get us through the day, but we are also setting an example that sometimes lying is okay. The same goes for telling your older kids to pretend they are 12 to get the free kids meal or asking them to keep secrets. Children quickly pick up on the narrative that sometimes lying or exaggerating is okay.
  4. Talk about honesty. Be sure to have conversations about honesty when it seems natural. These conversations don’t have to happen after you catch the child telling a tall tale. They can be held any time that makes sense. For example, maybe you are reading a book where the main character lies, and you can use that as a teaching moment and a way to explain why it’s important to be honest.
  5. Encourage creative outlets.  Some kids tell tall tales because they like to make up stories. If this is the case, there are better ways for them to use their imagination! For example, encourage kids to draw pictures of what they wish were true (such as the tale of his unicorn sister), and older kids can write out their stories on paper. They can even create their own storybooks with crayons, markers, or paint.

It’s great your son is actively using his imagination and we hope this guidance is helpful in navigating tall tales with him. And remember, the CareNectar team is here for you!

Meet The Expert


Shenley Seabrook

Shenley Seabrook is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who works primarily with children and adolescents in a private practice setting. She is also a foster parent and lives with her husband and daughter in Indiana. Shenley recently wrote her first children’s book, We Have the Same Heart, which celebrates diversity, inclusion, and community service.