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Four Year Old Lying About Misbehavior

QUESTION: I have a four year old son. Please help with the situation we are dealing with.

I woke up this morning and went into his room where he had been playing, presumably for some time while my husband and I were sleeping. There was black fuzz all over his floor and when he caught me examining it, he proceeded to explain that somebody had gone into my room, taken a pair of scissors and cut the ears and tail off his stuffed dog. He then produced the earless, tailless dog; divulged the hiding place of the scissors in questions (his hamper); and revealed that the ears and tail had been thrown away. I explained to him that I was upset that somebody had ruined his toy. That somebody had broken the rules(taking scissors and going in my room). My husband and I then got on the Internet and poured through three years of back issues of PARENTS magazine looking for relevant information. I found one article in print on lying that referred to 7 to 10 year olds. Nothing much else. Not wanting to let too much time elapse between the offense and the punishment, we went to address the issue with my son.

I again explained that somebody had broken the rules of the house by taking the scissors and ruining the toy, not to mention that an innocent toy had been ruined. My son offered several more possible suspects, the bad kids at school (I explained that there was no one else in the house); a plastic hamburger meal toy (I explained that the toy is not real and can neither walk into my room nor use scissors). I then asked what should happen to somebody who did these things and my son said they should get a time out. I asked again who somebody might be and my son very discreetly pointed to himself and began to cry because he didn't want a time out. I hugged him, told him I loved him but that he still needed the time out because he broke the rules. I told him I was very proud that he told the truth and that I knew it was hard to do. He stayed in time out for about two and a half minutes.

I feel a little frustrated. We know so much more about child rearing than our parents did but it feels like I have less answers. I also have concerns because my son is the product of a former marriage to a man with severe emotional problems. He is my only child so I don't know what's 'normal' and what isn't. Any help is appreciated.

Your son's behavior is normal! Not only did he tell you the truth, but his actions were relegated to his own property. Be careful that you do not project your ex-spouse's emotional problems onto your son. Seeing him through a lens of anxiety could distort your ability to respond to his needs.

Most children do experiment with lying at some point and 4 years old is a common age for this kind of behavior. Children are becoming aware of the world they live in and their ability to manipulate it. Your son's behavior gave you an opportunity to teach him values, which is your job as a parent. You were kind and loving, but firm. He no doubt got your message!

But, do take into consideration two important pieces that you may have missed and may be interrelated. These are: 1) your association that he would somehow be emotionally ill, like his father and 2) exploring the true meaning of your son's behavior.

The intensity of your concern about lying for this first time offense suggests that you may be susceptible to viewing his behavior in "all or nothing" terms which are based on your fears about his father rather than your knowledge of your son. The scenario would look like this: You might begin to see his behavior as "good" or "normal" only if he follows strict and narrow guidelines. Any deviation from being "good" could become overly charged with anxiety that he is "like his father". You would be vulnerable to overreacting when your son does need special attention, or when he does make mistakes. Your anxiety could cause you to be unavailable to him for problems that will inevitably arise throughout childhood. And he could reflect your anxiety by refraining from asking for your help when he needs it. Over time, a pattern of lying and deception could develop from your fears, if your anxiety overrides your ability to separate your anxiety about your ex-spouse from your experience of your son. However, do not despair, I do not think this is the case at this time! I am merely playing out the potential for your consideration.

Become curious about the meaning of your son's behavior. By focusing only on the act of "lying" and the "rules" you may miss important information about his emotional or intellectual life. Could he be expressing anger or feelings of hurt? Children express feelings through play. What might be your son's real reason for wanting to cut off the ears and tail of his stuffed dog? It is possible that he has feelings coming up about his father at this time, and this might be an opportunity to address them, rather than to be afraid of these issues. Feelings about his Dad will no doubt surface at some point and helping him to resolve them will be a natural part of his development. Consider also, the possibility that his behavior was more investigative in nature. Your interpretation that he "hurt an innocent toy" may or may not be in line with his real intent. What if he was practicing surgery on his own toy? Or practicing manipulation of future artistic forms? His behavior could represent an early interest in science or even art, though it would be too early to know for sure.

Consider, too that he may not have interpreted the house rules to include that he could not experiment with that which was his. There could be contradictory messages to sort out here. I remember my own daughter mutilating her Barbie because she wanted to see what her doll would look like with a haircut. She felt it was hers and that she had a right to change her hairdo!... And finally, is there any possibility that he might want to repair his dog? If so, helping him to sew the ears and tail back on (if at all possible, and if they could be found) might be appropriate consequences to include, particularly if he responded positively to the idea of reparation.

Naturally, rules are important and need to be upheld. But also allow yourself to be interested in who your child is and what he is trying to express. Do not narrow your focus to crime and punishment, without fair investigation into meaning and intent! Though the intent may not change the consequences, it will shed light on understanding your son's uniqueness. It is possible that your innermost fear about your son replicating his father's behavior may have distracted you from what otherwise may have been a very natural curiosity into his motives.

This incident of misbehavior created an opportunity for teaching values of honesty, clarifying rules and getting to know your son better. You are capable of loving consequences and clear boundary setting. Both of these are qualities essential to good parenting. (And you are conscientious to boot!) Future opportunities will arise for value clarification. And when they do, consider adding an element of curiosity (about what makes this little guy tick) to your parenting formula!


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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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