5 Signs Your Toddler is an Unreliable Narrator

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Ask my 3-year old what’s going on in her life and you will get a full run-down.  She will tell anyone who will listen about visiting me in the hospital, holding her new baby brother for the first time, and how she helped come up with his name.  She can’t wait to go back to our beach house this summer to build sandcastles with her friend Emily.  Yesterday she ate two cheeseburgers at the Fun Zone.

And it will be so sweet and entertaining until you realize that it is 100% untrue.

Her “baby brother” is actually a sister, we have no beach house, and ‘Emily’ exists only in the recesses of her toddler brain.  Hell, we haven’t been to the Fun Zone in almost a year, and I’ll be tickled with a feather if I could get her to eat one cheeseburger, let alone two.

When a toddler becomes more verbal, we rejoice because the floodgates to communication are finally open.  But my daughter (like many small children) is an “Unreliable Narrator”: clear, sincere…and not to be trusted.

Here’s how to spot their fiction:

1.) They embellish for drama.

My daughter came home from a visit with the grandparents and reported that “Grandpa broke his leg.”  I immediately called my dad, only to learn that he bumped his knee on a table, and said “ow.”  That’s all.  Even my toddler recognized that this story needed some heightening, and heighten she did.

2.) They compress time.

When I asked my toddler how school was, she stated that “Camden hit me today.”  At pick-up the next day, my concerned husband asked the teacher about this, and learned that Camden did in fact hit her…in September (an incident we already knew about).  I asked my daughter again about Camden, and she repeated “Camden hit me today.”

“You mean, a while ago.”

“Yes, a while ago today.”

For toddlers, “today” means “any time they can remember.”  “Yesterday” covers a range of dates spanning from 30 seconds ago all the way back to birth, and “tomorrow” implies an immediacy you can’t possibly deliver on.

3.) They pull a “Keyser Soze.”

The greatest trick my daughter ever pulled was convincing me that it all happened.

My toddler’s daily report from school:

“We watered the plants and made projects with purple paint and purple paper.  Then I ate goldfish and watched “Winnie the Pooh” on the green rug.”

“That sounds great, honey.”  Satisfied that she had a productive and enriching day, I hung up her coat.

Her purple coat.

Hmmm.  I looked around our living room and- boom!  There was a plant on our windowsill…next to a fish tank with our goldfish swirling around.  Her Winnie the Pooh stuffed animal on the rug.  The green rug.

And like that…poof…her credibility’s gone.

4.) They merge fiction with reality.

Toddlers have active fantasy lives and highly-developed inner worlds.  My three-year old’s world is a place where her belly button sings pop songs, her stuffed bunny eats her dinner for her, and her best friend is an invisible purple unicorn named “Biggly Boggly.”  It doesn’t surprise me that she draws upon television, books, and movies as creative launching pads, but it does make me question her reality.

For example:  it took me weeks before I figured out that “Caillou” was not a boy in her class, that she had no teacher named ‘Miss Nelson’, and her story of all the animals escaping during a trip to the zoo was just the plot of “Madagascar.”

5.) They present a desired outcome as fact.

More wishful thinking than straight-up lying, sometimes they will tell you what they think you want to hear:

“I pooped in the potty today!” my toddler exclaimed as she came in the door.  I looked at my husband.  “Did she?”

“If by ‘potty’ she means ‘carseat,’ then yes.”

Other times, they will tell you what THEY want to hear:

“Daddy said I can have chocolate milk for dinner.”

Did he, now?

As frustrating as it is to try and suss out the truth from my toddler’s pronouncements, I realize I’m just as guilty of spinning yarns.   The t.v. isn’t really “broken,” Bunny Bun #1 isn’t off on vacation somewhere, and if she keeps eating bubble solution, she probably won’t turn into a bubble and float away.

Clearly I have no problem saying what I need to say in order to create meaningful moments with my daughter (and avoid calling poison control). And as I step into the rainbow-and singing belly button-filled world of my toddler, I know that the best narrators are occasionally unreliable.

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