Why is this 4-year-old lying all of a sudden?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  April 29, 2010 06:00 AM

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Dear Barbara,

I'm not a mom, but I'm an aunt who is in need of advice about a four-year-old. I absolutely adore my little niece and we have always spent a lot of time together. Lately she has developed a tendency to lie about anything and everything for no apparent reason.

As her aunt, it certainly isn't my place to get involved in correcting this, but lately she has been lying to her mother about what we do when we are together. I rolled my eyes and laughed when her mother called me to ask why I fed her ice cream for lunch when we'd actually had chicken and summer squash, but lately the lying has put me in a very bad light. As an example, last week she told her mother that she had a bruise on her knee because I hit her. In reality, she got the bruise because she was running on the beach and tripped, landing on her knees in a rocky spot. I was very surprised by this as my niece gives every indication of being as fond of me as I am of her. My sister-in-law didn't really think I'd hit her daughter, but she did call me about it.

Any advice on how to manage this sort of thing while I'm with my niece, without stepping on her mother's toes, would be much appreciated. I love the time I spend with her and like being able to give my brother and sister-in-law a break sometimes by taking her off their hands for a few hours, but if she is going to tell them that I am hurting her, then I don't really feel comfortable taking her.


From: Maggie, Boston

Hi Maggie,

Children this age lie for all kinds of reasons that aren't always apparent to us. For instance, when she said you fed her a lunch of ice cream, I'm guessing that was her way of making a joke and being silly because she knows that you know and mom know how silly that would be.

Another common reason children lie is to get attention, and I'm guessing that's why she said you hit her: It got her attention from her mom.  Other common reasons preschoolers might lie: to avoid punishment (is it possible she thought falling on the rock was something she would be in trouble for? Did she rip her pants?); to get a material reward; and to keep a promise (perhaps she had promised she would be careful if she wore this outfit.) Don't try to follow a child's reasoning on this; it might not make sense to us.

But you're right, there's a big difference between a lie that's just silly and makes everyone laugh and a lie about being hit. She may or may not have an inkling about that.

So what do you do? It sounds like you have a good relationship with your niece, and I would assume this is a phase that does not reflect on you or the relationship. You  mention not wanting to "step on the mother's toes" but you can't ignore lying behavior if you see it when you are with your niece. Here are my suggestions:

Whatever you do, don't accuse her of lying or of having lied in the past. That will only make her defensive and indignant. If you are alone with her and you suspect she's not telling the truth, tell her, "I'm not sure if you are telling the truth. Before you say anything else, I'd like you to think about this some more."

Don't try to trap her or tempt her to lie, and don't collude with her to lie. That models deceit.

If you have evidence of a lie, simply present it: "You said you didn't eat any cookies, and yet all the cookies are gone. I'm wondering if you are telling the truth." Or: "I don't think you are telling the truth. I'm not happy to have a rule broken, but I'm even less happy if someone lies about it." (Keep it in the third person; it's less threatening.)

What troubles me most about your email isn't the 4-year-old's lies, but the underlying issues that seem to be there with you and your sister-in-law. You said you don't "want to step on her toes," and that if "[my niece] is going to tell them that I am hurting her," you don't want to be with her. This all makes me wonder about the relationship with your sister-in-law. Are you worried she won't trust you?  You absolutely need to have a conversation with her about all this, along the lines of, "Gee, have you noticed that she's telling white lies all of a sudden? What do you think that's all about...."

I would urge you not to abandon your niece, however; because that's the way it will feel to her: that you abandoned her.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.


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5 comments so far...
  1. Barbara, unless you edited the letter, I don't see anything that indicates there's a bad relationship between the LW and her SIL. In fact, it seems quite the opposite to me - when SIL hears stories that she doesn't believe, she calls the LW to get her side of the story.

    LW - talk to your SIL and brother. Tell them what you told Barbara, and see what they say. It sounds like your niece isn't lying *to* you, but rather *about* you. I can see why that's disturbing, particularly in this day and age where there's so much hyperawareness about child abuse - it's not such a huge leap that the LW could be accused. Assuming you're all on the same page, work together to figure out a solution. Maybe when you bring your niece home, you can all chat about what happened, so that if she lies you can 'catch' her in it and have the conversations like Barbara suggested. Alternatively, maybe any outings need to be group outings for a while. Good luck.

    Posted by akmom April 29, 10 07:11 AM
  1. The dear darling rugrat has discovered the power of playing off one sibling against another --I am referring to the child manipulating the adults. These lies have a direction--to bend the mom's rules.

    The simple way to stop this in its tracks is to kindly call up the mom with her kid sitting next to you and say "I had such a nice visit with your daughter--we had chicken and veggies for lunch".

    Whenever a child in your care falls or bumps themselves it is your obligation to say so to the parent up front. That way THEY will know what to say should there be a middle-of-the-night medical emergency or an infection (heaven forbid).

    There is something else--the parents should define the limits that the aunt can use with their full blessing. IT IS PART OF CARING FOR ANY CHILD that you may have to set the rugrat straight about what their parents wishes are and that you will follow the parents and not the child's fantasies.

    Now that the child has shown that this is necessary, it should be done calmly without accusations of lying. Just use the tone that you do what the parents want.

    Posted by Irene April 29, 10 09:16 AM
  1. I would suggest explaining to the girl exactly what lying is and what telling the truth is, and explain why she must tell the truth (insert your family values here). How about stories like the boy who cried wolf--he lied and then no one would believe him. Also, if you know she's lying and refuses to tell the truth, how about some discipline? There's nothing wrong with punishing a child for lying. I've often told my kids that if they confess to something (that I knew they were guilty of) they would get a small punishment (or sometimes no punishment at all), but if they lied about it, they would get a big punishment. It never failed, and I thanked them for being truthful--we all make mistakes, but it's important to tell the truth, etc. Make sure you praise her for being truthful when she does tell the truth.

    Posted by chilly April 29, 10 01:04 PM
  1. If the LW is concerned about stepping on toes, and the SIL calls to check out stories that the child is telling then why not ask the SIL what to do. It is simple the LW says to SIL as you have noticed niece has been not been truthful, is there anything I can to to help re-enforce your rules? How do you deal with niece when she decides to get creative with the facts?

    That way she is not stepping on toes and helps the parents out. Really I didn't think it was all the complicated.

    Posted by WES April 30, 10 02:22 PM
  1. Thank you for all of the wonderful advice on how to cope with this going forward. I hadn't thought of this in terms of being an attention grabber but this certainly makes perfect sense considering she has a new baby sister at home. No doubt I should have mentioned this detail in my letter.

    I have a great relationship with my sister-in-law, who I introduce to my brother while she was my college roommate. However, I remember how annoying my mother found unsolicited childrearing advice from an aunt who didn't have children of her own, so I try to avoid doing this myself in general rather than due to my specific relationship with this little girl's mother.

    Again, thank you Barbara & everyone who commented.

    Posted by Maggie May 3, 10 01:02 AM
 
5 comments so far...
  1. Barbara, unless you edited the letter, I don't see anything that indicates there's a bad relationship between the LW and her SIL. In fact, it seems quite the opposite to me - when SIL hears stories that she doesn't believe, she calls the LW to get her side of the story.

    LW - talk to your SIL and brother. Tell them what you told Barbara, and see what they say. It sounds like your niece isn't lying *to* you, but rather *about* you. I can see why that's disturbing, particularly in this day and age where there's so much hyperawareness about child abuse - it's not such a huge leap that the LW could be accused. Assuming you're all on the same page, work together to figure out a solution. Maybe when you bring your niece home, you can all chat about what happened, so that if she lies you can 'catch' her in it and have the conversations like Barbara suggested. Alternatively, maybe any outings need to be group outings for a while. Good luck.

    Posted by akmom April 29, 10 07:11 AM
  1. The dear darling rugrat has discovered the power of playing off one sibling against another --I am referring to the child manipulating the adults. These lies have a direction--to bend the mom's rules.

    The simple way to stop this in its tracks is to kindly call up the mom with her kid sitting next to you and say "I had such a nice visit with your daughter--we had chicken and veggies for lunch".

    Whenever a child in your care falls or bumps themselves it is your obligation to say so to the parent up front. That way THEY will know what to say should there be a middle-of-the-night medical emergency or an infection (heaven forbid).

    There is something else--the parents should define the limits that the aunt can use with their full blessing. IT IS PART OF CARING FOR ANY CHILD that you may have to set the rugrat straight about what their parents wishes are and that you will follow the parents and not the child's fantasies.

    Now that the child has shown that this is necessary, it should be done calmly without accusations of lying. Just use the tone that you do what the parents want.

    Posted by Irene April 29, 10 09:16 AM
  1. I would suggest explaining to the girl exactly what lying is and what telling the truth is, and explain why she must tell the truth (insert your family values here). How about stories like the boy who cried wolf--he lied and then no one would believe him. Also, if you know she's lying and refuses to tell the truth, how about some discipline? There's nothing wrong with punishing a child for lying. I've often told my kids that if they confess to something (that I knew they were guilty of) they would get a small punishment (or sometimes no punishment at all), but if they lied about it, they would get a big punishment. It never failed, and I thanked them for being truthful--we all make mistakes, but it's important to tell the truth, etc. Make sure you praise her for being truthful when she does tell the truth.

    Posted by chilly April 29, 10 01:04 PM
  1. If the LW is concerned about stepping on toes, and the SIL calls to check out stories that the child is telling then why not ask the SIL what to do. It is simple the LW says to SIL as you have noticed niece has been not been truthful, is there anything I can to to help re-enforce your rules? How do you deal with niece when she decides to get creative with the facts?

    That way she is not stepping on toes and helps the parents out. Really I didn't think it was all the complicated.

    Posted by WES April 30, 10 02:22 PM
  1. Thank you for all of the wonderful advice on how to cope with this going forward. I hadn't thought of this in terms of being an attention grabber but this certainly makes perfect sense considering she has a new baby sister at home. No doubt I should have mentioned this detail in my letter.

    I have a great relationship with my sister-in-law, who I introduce to my brother while she was my college roommate. However, I remember how annoying my mother found unsolicited childrearing advice from an aunt who didn't have children of her own, so I try to avoid doing this myself in general rather than due to my specific relationship with this little girl's mother.

    Again, thank you Barbara & everyone who commented.

    Posted by Maggie May 3, 10 01:02 AM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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