Marguerite Kelly
Family Almanac

A little boy’s lies

Q. My 8-year-old son has been fibbing lately. We discovered this when his answers didn’t match up with the situation.

Even though he makes up stories about unimportant things, we’ve told him that it’s bad to do that, and that it’s important to be truthful and trustworthy. But he still doesn’t tell us the truth.

(Hadley Hooper/For The Washington Post)

If we say, “Did you brush your teeth?” he’ll say, “Yes,” even though the answer should be “NO!” He did tell us the truth after he fibbed the last time, however, which I appreciated since I wouldn’t have known what had really happened if he hadn’t confessed. But is this progress?

Or is this related to something bigger? Because my father died recently — and in a very tragic way — I can’t help wondering if the two things might be connected somehow. Or is fibbing normal at this age?

A. Children express grief in many ways, but your son’s fibbing was probably caused by his age rather than your father’s death. Eight-year-olds try on behaviors and some of these behaviors — like lying — don’t fit too well. But these behaviors are necessary because they force a child to choose between right and wrong. When it works — and it usually does — the conscience gets a little stronger, the self a little surer.

This testing occurs in some fashion every year, as you probably have seen in your son.

When he was 7, he looked inward. He may also have brooded a lot, moaned about his lot in life and thought about his wants, his needs and himself more than anything or anyone. And then he turned 8. Suddenly this same child became expansive. Now he bounces from one activity to the next; he asks how much everything costs and sometimes he tries to act as sophisticated as you.

But underneath this flibbertigibbet behavior is a sensitive fellow who has begun to think of others and to wonder what others think of him — especially his parents. Because your son has put you on a pedestal this year, you need to know that he will be devastated if you get really mad at him. Power is so easy to abuse.

The lying should stop soon if you keep handling the problem as well as you’re handling it now and if you remember that lying has several different causes, which should be corrected in several different ways.

Some children make up stories because they’re bored or because they want their parents to pay more attention to them. If you think that’s true with your son, then introduce a few adventures into his life or spend more time with him, no matter how busy you are.

A number of 8-year-olds — and 6-year-olds and 4-year-olds — lie because that’s what children often do at these ages. But other children lie, at every age, if they think their parents will get mad at them for telling the truth or that their parents will yell at them or embarrass them in front of their friends.

The effectiveness of your corrections may also depend on your tone of voice and how you question your son. If someone tells you that she saw him skateboarding in the street, tell him what you know as soon as he comes home. If you ask him where he was skateboarding, you would be tempting him to say “on the sidewalk” instead of “on the sidewalk and then in the street,” and that would be unfair.

If you don’t know whether your son brushed his teeth, finished his homework or paid for the candy bar he’s eating, you should ask him directly and nonjudgmentally, just as you would ask a colleague if she finished writing her report.

But if your son insists that he’s telling the truth, give him the benefit of the doubt. If his story keeps gnawing at you, ask him again after he’s in bed and the lights are out. Your boy may find it easier to tell the truth in the dark or after he’s had a couple of conversations about it.

When he does confess, you should congratulate him for being truthful and tell him that you’re proud of him because honesty is a family tradition. This may seem like a strange combination, but many children obey family traditions as if they were the Ten Commandments, which makes them more effective than a punishment.

Although you may have to cancel a treat if your son tells an egregious lie, most children will go straight if their parents have told them several times — in low and sorrowful voices — that they are deeply disappointed in them. Just that, nothing more. A little remorse quickly straightens out most children.

Send questions about parenting to advice@margueritekelly.com.

Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A hosted by Kelly and read past Family Almanac columns.

 
Read what others are saying