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Our 5-year-old is lying. How can we steer him away from this habit?

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Q: Our 5-year-old son has started to stretch the truth in different ways. Initially, it would be creative things, such as seeing a dragon in the backyard. Now, he has expanded to telling Mom or Dad that the other parent said yes to something that was a no, such as bedtime or being allowed to open a present. What is the best way to address this with him? We would like to be united in our response. My partner tends to call him out and tells him he is lying (doesn't name-call by calling him a liar) and that lying is serious and not good. I tend to talk to him about what led him to say what he said. Are there other approaches that may be effective but not traumatic for him? I feel like we have been missing the boat on the best way to address this. Thank you!

A: Ah, congrats! You have a creative and bright child who has learned how to use that to his advantage; this is pretty typical.

To better understand what you’re seeing, let’s take a look at why children “lie” (or stretch the truth). To begin, children are often raised believing in magic. They have an unparalleled imagination, from Santa to the tooth fairy. Everything and anything is possible, and so there are fantastical stories to be shared, such as those involving dragons. Parents generally love these stories, and they will encourage them heartily.

But then, somewhere along the way, your son made an important discovery. He wanted, say, a cookie, and he asked Dad. Dad says no and leaves the kitchen. Shortly thereafter, Mom walks into the kitchen, and the boy asks for a cookie. “Sure,” she says, and an idea takes root in his 5-year-old brain: Mom and Dad say yes and no to different things. Pretty soon, your son skips asking each of you separately and jumps to: “Can I have a cookie? Mom said it’s okay.”

Of course, your parenting alarms all go berserk! “My child is a liar! He will grow up to be a liar! We must put a quick end to this now!” No parents like to have their child lie to them, but here is where I want to draw some distinctions. Is your child not telling the truth to get what he wants? Yes. Is your child actively manipulating you with planned lies? No, probably not. Typically, 5-year-olds are not savvy enough for this thought, but even if he is? You aren’t going to get anywhere by calling him a liar, which you aren’t doing, and that’s great, nor are you going to get anywhere by telling him he is lying. In his mind, your son has cleverly found a way to get what he wants; he isn’t lying!

First, you and your husband should assume, moving forward, that your son is probably not telling the truth when he says: “Mom said I could have it.” It would naturally follow, then, that you should stop asking him this question. Rather than expecting a 5-year-old to mature quickly, stop inviting the mistruths right away.

Second, have a parents’ meeting about the tall tales. What do they involve? Food? Toys? Tech? As adults, establish some rules that are clear and concise so that you no longer need to wonder what the other one said.

Third, skip over the lying and go for family meetings instead. Use language such as: “There has been some disagreement around bedtime. Let’s create a chart so we all know the deal. Ralph, what are three things that happen at night, and what time is bedtime?” Use this forum for back-and-forth, clarity and allowing your son to have positive power, rather than the negative power of mistruths. You can create both rewards and consequences in these meetings; just do it together as a family.

If you move forward positively, you will find that the lying will take care of itself. Good luck.

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