The Hamilton Spectator

My six-year-old son has started lying. A lot. How do I get it to stop?

- CERI MARSH CONTRIBUTI­NG COLUMNIST

My previously sweet, easygoing six-year-old son has recently changed. I don’t know if it’s starting Grade 1, the influence of new friends, or just some stage I didn’t read about in the parenting books, but he’s become sneaky and, worst of all, he’s started lying. A lot.

Sometimes the lies are about what he’s done. For instance, if I ask if he’s brushed his teeth in the morning, he says yes even when I can see jam on his lips from breakfast. Or, if I ask who took the last muffin from the tray, he blames his little sister, but then I find the muffin paper in his pocket. It’s like his first impulse is to lie to me.

I know none of these things are earth-shattering, but it makes me crazy. It also adds to the frequency that he’s in trouble with me. I don’t want to constantly be doling out punishment­s, but it feels wrong to just let it go. I feel like if I don’t address this now it will only get

worse. And anyway, me being angry about the lies doesn’t seem to move the needle. How can I turn this situation around? The other day I realized that I’m now suspicious of many things he says — and that feels terrible. Fibber’s Father

I think that terrible feeling you’re describing is betrayal. We pour so much into our kids — in terms of emotion, time, expense, you name it — that it can really sting when they do something that is so obviously wrong. Except telling the truth isn’t obvious, it’s a learned behaviour. And your son is just about on track developmen­tally with his wobbly grasp on truth-telling.

It’s actually so much more complicate­d than we allow for. We watch in delight as our kids play imaginary games with costumes; we encourage them to thank grandma for the itchy sweater she sent for their birthday; and we create elaborate stories about rabbits who deliver chocolates. And without explaining it explicitly, we expect kids to intuit the difference between harmless, acceptable lies and ones that will land them in a screen-free timeout. And eventually most of them do.

Victoria Talwar, author of “The Truth About Lying: Teaching Honesty to Children at Every Age and Stage,” describes those socially acceptable versions as being “pro social” lies. Kids learn this behaviour by watching adults and other kids, but also through empathy. They’ll say that, yes, they think Aunt Sue’s haircut looks nice (even if they think it’s a hot mess).

Very small kids don’t have the ability to pretend they like things they actually don’t — and we’ve all got hilarious stories arising from this bluntness.

Around your son’s age, kids start understand­ing another kind of lie, which includes intentiona­lity. Which is just a fancy way to say trying to get away with something. Luckily, most kids do this quite poorly when they give it a try. As you’ve pointed out, you know pretty quickly when your kid hasn’t brushed his teeth or returned the library book.

Talwar describes these lies as having self-interest. Your son doesn’t think he’s saving your feelings by saying he’s brushed his teeth; in fact he more than likely knows you’re going to be upset if he hasn’t done it by the time you’re asking him about it.

In a recent episode of the “Speaking of Psychology” podcast, Talwar said, “Make sure that if honesty is something you value, then you recognize it in your children. If they’re honest, we often forget to recognize it because they’re being honest about a transgress­ion. So we jump right to the transgress­ion.

“You should take a moment to at least give them recognitio­n that they’ve done the brave thing and told you the truth. If you never recognize it, they think, ‘Well, it doesn’t actually matter at all when I’m honest. I don’t get any positive feedback.’ ”

In your son’s case, you might have to start catching him being honest, rather than looking out for lies — even when it’s a small-stakes situation. if you tell him, “Thanks for telling me that you took a cookie before dinner. That must have been hard to do” before you remind him to knock it off with the cookie stealing, he’ll get the message that it’s better to tell the truth.

There’s nothing wrong with letting your kid know that you value honesty and don’t condone lying. However, try to not go too hard on punishment­s.

Talwar points to studies that show kids who receive excessive punishment­s for lying tend to simply become better liars.

The other advice Talwar gives parents is to make sure you’re modelling honesty yourself. If kids observe us lying to get out of social obligation­s or to gain some sort of advantage, they’ll understand that some lying is OK.

Try your best to show them how to be honest, even when it’s difficult.

 ?? DREAMSTIME ?? While we tell children elaborate stories about rabbits who deliver chocolates without explaining it explicitly, at the same time we expect them to intuit the difference between harmless lies and ones that will land them a punishment.
DREAMSTIME While we tell children elaborate stories about rabbits who deliver chocolates without explaining it explicitly, at the same time we expect them to intuit the difference between harmless lies and ones that will land them a punishment.

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