Parenting for the Perplexed | How to handle it when children lie

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Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Send questions through her Facebook page: Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale or via [email protected].

A friend told me his 5-year-old nephew, unusually bright (really — I’ve heard the things he’s says), came home from kindergarten one day with his pockets bulging suspiciously. When his mother asked what was in his pockets, he said “nothing.” She gave him a moment to think about it and then asked to look. In a calm way she asked if he took the Lego pieces from school and told him he’d made a “bad decision” and will have to return them. He made a beeline for his room.

Minutes later, she knocked and entered, finding him scrunched under his bed. She coaxed him out with “I’m not angry, but it’s important that you tell me the truth. Even if you did something wrong.” The boy cried and emptied his pockets. He was too upset to explain why he did it, but it was obvious to his mom, who knew what a Lego lover he is.

Mom gave a short shpiel about stealing and why it’s wrong and told the boy he would have to return the Legos to the teacher the next day and apologize. He blanched and pleaded: “How about if I just bring them back and put them in the bin when nobody’s looking?” Mom said no, he had to own up to what he had done. The shame was part of the lesson. He ran to his room and slid under the bed again. She let him be. A while later he came out of his room with a smile on his face: “How about if I send the pieces to school in the mail?”

Both Mom and Dad thought this was pretty ingenious. But then they decided it was still avoidance and told him he must return the pieces and face the teacher. He didn’t eat much dinner and went to sleep in tears. The next morning, Dad took him to school and stood right by his side as he returned the Legos and told the teacher he was sorry. She said she was happy to see that after he did something wrong he understood it was so, brought the Lego back and said he was sorry, though he couldn’t look the teacher in the eye.

Lying, as most parents have seen, is an integral part of growing up. It starts innocently enough when your child does not yet have a firm grasp on the difference between reality and wishful fantasy. Soon, he learns what a useful tool it is for wiggling out of tight spots until caught (“I didn’t touch the iPhone”) and getting what he wants (“No, Mommy didn’t give me the cookie she promised for after dinner.”).

Around 5 is, in fact, the optimal age to start tracking lies more carefully and confronting your child when she resorts to them, because by that age most kids have a firm grasp on what’s true and what’s not. Did the parents do the right thing? Certainly. Confronting the boy’s actions, explaining the importance of telling the truth, making things right, apologizing and standing by him were all key.

I do wonder if the parents might have met their son halfway and supported his “creative problem-solving.” That would have demonstrated to him the benefit of telling the truth. Of course, this would depend on the child’s personality. For this boy, I trust the parents knew he could handle the embarrassment and learn his lesson.

For a different child, a possible alternative scenario would be saying something like: “If you took the Legos without permission, that is stealing. If you tell me the truth, I’ll help you find a way to return them that will not be too embarrassing, perhaps mailing the Legos with a written note. If you lie and I find out from the teacher, you’ll have to return the Legos to the teacher and apologize to her face-to-face.”

Step one in teaching kids not to lie is helping them articulate why they lied and getting to the greed, anger, envy, hurt or other difficult emotions that lead to it. Once you empathize with the feeling behind the lying, talk with your child about other ways he could have addressed the situation.

Rachel Biale
Rachel Biale

Rachel Biale, an Israeli native, is a Bay Area Jewish community professional and author.