Whether you call them fibs, tall tales, exaggerations, or untruths, lies can get out of hand, so you don't want your child to get in the habit of telling them. Nip the deceit in the bud by understanding the reasons behind early childhood lies and learning the best ways to respond.

Common Lie: "I jumped five feet in the air!"

What it means: Outrageous lies are usually a result of your child's overactive imagination, and the fact that toddlers and preschoolers can't always tell the difference between fantasy and reality. If your child is playing a game of pretend basketball, he may convince himself that he's soaring in the air when he's really jumping a few inches off the ground. Another reason for over-the-top stories: Young children believe their thoughts can change how something happened (this is called magical thinking). So a child who says a purple unicorn stole the cookie off the kitchen counter might be trying to undo her part or clear her guilty conscious by "rewriting" the event.

How to respond: Don't make a big deal of it if kids are only blurring the lines instead of purposely lying. Instead, "explain that the main difference between pretend play and lying is that pretending is fun and harmless, while lying can hurt people," says Bridget Boyd, M.D., a pediatrician at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. Identify instances of pretending and lying, and discuss the difference. If a character in a book puts on a fancy dress and tiara and proclaims herself a princess, for instance, tell your child that this is pretending. But if that same character tears the dress and then says a dragon did it, that's lying. Work with your child to help her learn when it's okay to tell tall tales and when it's time for the truth.

Common Lie: "Yes, I picked up my toys."

What it means: When your child lies about doing something that you know he hasn't done, it usually means he wants to avoid an unpleasant task, such as picking up his books or making his bed.

How to respond: First, don't ask questions if you already know the answer. If you know your child hasn't completed a chore and you still ask if he has, it's as if you're asking him to lie, because he'll probably want to say whatever it takes to avoid punishment, says Nancy Buck, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and author of Why Do Kids Act That Way? If the lie is a first-time offense, explain why lying isn't a good thing, how it makes others feel, and what the punishment will be if he continues to lie. Avoid punishment the first time; give him another opportunity to complete the task or help him do so. Then thank him when he's completed the chore. The next time he claims he's already done something he hasn't, remind him that lying is unacceptable and then follow through with the discussed consequence.

Common Lie: "No, I didn't give the dog candy."

What it means: When kids are afraid they'll get in trouble or disappoint you, they might say they didn't do something, even if the evidence is right in front of you.

How to respond: Remember, if you're sure your child is the guilty culprit, don't give her the opportunity to lie about it. For those times you're not certain, ask in a non-accusing tone. If you learn at a later time that your child lied, have another discussion about the importance of honesty, Dr. Boyd says. During the talk, "point out that telling the truth will result in a lesser punishment than lying will," she says. In the future, when your kid admits to a transgression, praise her for the honesty, and reduce the severity of the punishment.

Common Lie: "I made this cake all by myself!"

What it means: Your child is trying to impress others or make someone (like you!) happy. He may claim he drew a picture, when it really came from his coloring book. Or he might boast that he has a collection of 100 toy dinosaurs.

How to respond: Even though he's stretching the truth to make himself look better, it's still important to maintain a consistent "no lies" rule. Explain that you and other people like him just the way he is, especially when he's telling the truth and being himself. Praise him often, and help him recognize his own strengths: Maybe he's a fast counter or he's mastered tying his shoe. Letting him know how special he is will boost his ego and squelch any need to fabricate stories.

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