Q: My daughter started kindergarten this year, and I’ve caught her lying about a few things. They’ve been things that are minor and that wouldn’t be a big deal but for the dishonesty. For example, I noticed that her lunch account showed her purchasing lunch on days when I had sent lunch with her. I asked her about it, and she denied having bought her lunch. I checked with the cafeteria workers, and they confirmed that she had bought her lunch. I’m not sure how to handle this, especially because these situations have occurred when I was just asking a question to clarify something, not because she was anywhere close to getting into trouble. I’m concerned that dishonesty about little things now will lead to dishonesty about big things later. Do I let it slide or do something to address it?
A: I get a surprising number of questions about children who are lying, so I want you to know you are not alone. That's not to say it's not annoying or alarming; it can be. It also falls into the norm of behaviors we see from children this age (assuming she is 5 or 6 years old).
Why do children lie? If we can’t answer this question, we will fumble around with poor solutions that not only don’t help the child but also could make the lying worse.
Humans are built to be together. Our primary desire is to belong to one another. This is a primal drive; it is not conscious. For children, the need to belong to their parents or caretakers is critical and drives much of the behavior we see.
But as children attend school and are surrounded by their peers, they also want to be like their friends. I am guessing your daughter is friends with a group whose leader buys her lunch every day, making your daughter want to buy her lunch, too. This is not a premeditated decision on your daughter’s part. I am confident she didn’t bring her lunch to school and think to herself, “Little does Mom know, I am going to buy my lunch today and then lie to her.” Your daughter is not mature enough for that kind of subterfuge. She was with her friends, they were buying lunch, and she wanted to be like her friends. Pretty easy to get, right? Perhaps she did it for another reason. Maybe she hates your lunch and spotted the hot pizza. She could have forgotten her lunch upstairs, and the folks in the cafeteria supplied her with a lunch that she liked better. I’m willing to bet that whatever she did, she wasn’t trying to get into trouble.
Why did she lie to you? As much as she wants to be like her friends, as soon as you ask about this discrepancy, your daughter’s alarm system activates. Remember, her biological drive is to belong to you. And what would divide you? The fact that she didn’t eat the lunch you made her! She thinks, “Don’t disappoint Mom!” and a lie pops out. When children are older and have these big brains whirring with a bit more maturity, the lies can become more deliberate. But when a child is 5? She just wants everything to be okay between you and her. The lie is ridiculous (of course you will find out the truth), and it doesn’t matter that she can’t defend herself. She simply can’t stand a separation between you, physical or emotional.
When you understand this, you can see your child with empathy and a soft heart.
As for the worry of her becoming a chronic liar, let me explain how children become dishonest teens and adults.
At some point in a dishonest person’s life, a lie sprang forth to not cause separation. The lie was not couched in anything sinister or evil; it was protection against vulnerability and pain. The dishonest person was either actively shamed or perceived shame and separation (this is an important point — not everything is the parent’s fault) at the exposure of the lie, and the brain went into panic mode. Shame turns people away from vulnerability and, as a result, from honesty. Think about it: The child has lied, and now we will take their nose and rub it in it, as we do with a dog that left a mess on the living room rug. Shame, shame, shame. The child’s brain says: “The lie was bad, but the honesty was worse. We are not doing that again.” And the dishonesty begins.
Can this cycle be undone? Yup. You can also stop this cycle from beginning in the first place. Here’s how to handle this lie.
1. Check your anger before you talk to your child. If you are going “to teach her a lesson” or interrogate her, take a beat. Or many beats. The lie has been said, and the lunch has been eaten. This is not a time-sensitive crisis that has to be addressed right away.
2. Don’t ask the child whether she lied when you know the truth. I mean, really. Even a shred of logic shows this is not the direction you want to go. It is entrapment. Just proceed with the truth: “Isabelle, I know you bought your lunch four times this month.” Just say it.
3. Don’t ask her why she lied. I told you the answer to this question already. She lied to prevent separation between the two of you, not because she is Bernie Madoff.
4. Get curious about the reasons behind the lie. “So, Isabelle, I bet it was fun and delicious to get lunch from the cafeteria. I used to love pizza day at my school.” Have a sparkle in your eye, not a “give me the truth, ya rotten kid” look. See whether she can meet your eyes with the recognition of “Mom gets it!” A shared look of kindness indicates that there is no separation between the two of you. This means you can proceed.
5. Make a new plan. This step requires that you let the lie go. You will see it for what it is: a young child making a mistake. The new plan may sound like “Isabelle, it sounds like you love to buy lunch. Let’s do this: You get to buy lunch __________.” (You choose what you would like to happen here. Two days a week? Once a month? She chooses? You choose?) The point is that you are planning for what will happen next. If you cannot or will not allow her to buy lunch, your plan needs to talk about how your daughter will be disappointed, and that is okay.
6. Let your daughter know that although you don't love a fib, you always love her. No matter what. Remember: Shame turns people into liars. You don't have to love that your daughter told a fib about a lunch. This is the first of many mistakes she will make in her lifetime. Your job isn't to shame and punish; it's to love her, lead her and stick with her. No matter what. That is what a parent does. Her memory of the moment will be "I told a fib, Mom found out, we talked about it, and she and I are still okay. Mom loves me no matter what." This is what creates honest, loving adults.