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My Child is Telling Lies!

QUESTION: My five-year-old son has started lying -- when the truth would work just fine! He has also started bringing home toys from school and saying that our next door neighbor gave them to him. We have not been harsh with him in the past, but he doesn't seem to get it. What is the best way to stop this behavior?

ANSWER: It is not unusual for children to experiment with lying at some point in their development. Children test limits at various times throughout childhood, in order to clarify boundaries and consequences. Five years of age is a common period for this kind of reality testing.

Use your son's behavior as an opportunity to reinforce good character and clarify values. The following guidelines can help you:

  • Teach your child the value of honesty by giving appropriate consequences. Keep in mind that your job is to teach, not to punish, but do not stop there! Help your child take action to repair the lie.

    For example: Return items taken/stolen to their proper owner. Accompany your son to your neighbor's house to return toys taken. Support your son to verbalize his mistake and apologize for his actions. This reparative action may be all the consequence needed.

  • Do not reward lying by ignoring it. Allowing your child to "get his way," or by engaging him in endless angry interactions about the lie won't accomplish your goal. Instead, set limits and matter-of-factly enforce them when necessary.

    For example: Tell your son that you are interested in knowing if something is bothering him about brushing his teeth, but that lying is not an answer to whatever problem he may be having. Let him know you will help him if he tells you what is really going on, but require that he brush his teeth in your presence.

  • Do not berate or label your child negatively. Instead, make statements that communicate a belief in your child's overall goodness, but label the behavior. Align yourself with your child, and against the detrimental behavior.

    For example: "I know you are not a liar. What is stopping you from telling the truth?" Or: "You are not a thief. Why did you take what was not yours?"
  • Create a safe family environment. This will allow for expression of a full range of feelings, however unpopular they may be. Children can then separate feelings from actions that are damaging.

    For example: If your son feels it is safe to express anger or sadness directly to you, he is less likely to cloak it in misbehavior or lies.

  • Let your child know that we are all tempted to take short cuts at times. Then point out the damaging effects that lying can have on relationships and self-esteem.

    For example: "Sometimes telling a lie or taking something that is not yours seems easy, but in the long run the consequences of this behavior causes others to distrust you. You end up feeling badly about yourself, too."

The suggestions above are usually all that is required to help your child correct their course and restore honesty and healthy self-respect in the process. However, other motivations, when present, may complicate the picture and are worth noting.

Consider whether your child may be misbehaving in an attempt to get attention, albeit it negative from you. All children need to feel special in some way. A child who does not feel their own unique and positive value may revert to stealing and lying as compensation.

Remember, too, that our children learn patterns of coping and behavior from those around them. Is your child modeling behavior that he sees adults do? Sometimes our children's behavior points to weaknesses in character, which we have overlooked in our own families. If your son notices that his dad or mom avoids conflict in the marriage through white lies, for example, a child may try this behavior out himself. In such cases, a husband or wife believes their behavior to be benign, such as telling a spouse you are late because of traffic, rather than that time was taken to visit a friend or run your own errand.

If lying and stealing are patterns of behavior that persist, consider what the emotional meaning of this behavior is for your child. Seek to guide your child and correct your own behavior, if necessary. After all, we are all continually growing up.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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