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Child Caring

Lies and young friendships

My 5-year-old daughter has a best friend, a girl who is in her kindergarten class and someone she sees quite frequently outside of school. Lately, I've noticed that her friend is often lying to her. It's mostly harmless stuff, like explaining that she was 10 minutes late for school because she was on her way home from Disneyland. Or that she saw a movie that doesn't actually exist. To an adult, it's obvious that she's telling lies in order to impress her friends, but my daughter doesn't understand. Instead, she gets terribly jealous and the girls end up in a heated argument.

I'm trying to help my daughter react in a better way to the lying. Most of the time she knows that she's being lied to, and I've tried to explain to her that her friend is telling lies because they're usually about things that she wishes were true. But in the heat of the moment, she gets very upset, and the fight ensues. How can I help her deal with this?

Then the best friend usually ends it by saying, "I don't like you anymore," or "I don't want to be your best friend." I've told my daughter that she doesn't have to play with this girl and that when her friend says this, she can go find someone else to play with. But she says that this girl is her best friend, and sometimes they do play very nicely together. How can I help her through these rough patches in their friendship?
From: Annie C, Merrimack, NH


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Dear Annie,

You're right, of course: One reason kids this age lie is to impress each other and, given where they are cognitively, there's a lot of magical thinking involved. But because of where they are developmentally, I would not label these as "lies." Describe them -- as you yourself wrote -- as things her friend "wishes were true."

Why?

1. This enables your daughter to join in the fantasy instead of feeling betrayed or trapped. For instance, when the friend says she's late for school because she was at Disneyland, your daughter could say, "I know! I was there yesterday! It was so cool! Next time I go, I want to........" This will enable both girls to share the fantasy (there will be an unspoken agreement that it is, in fact, fantasy) and eliminates the need to fight. Role play this with her.

2. When you call it "lying," you create cognitive dissonance. Your daughter knows lying is bad but she's not done with the friendship, lying or not. Which means that at some level, she's wondering: "If I'm best friends with someone who lies, does that make me a bad person?" It's a circular way of thinking, again, magical thinking.

Keep in mind that the lying is a developmental stage that will disappear. Typically between 5 and 7, children recognize that telling untruths is unfair. They see it as a kind of cheating and, around age 8, they see the world in black and white and there's no room for cheaters. Your daughter may get there before the friend does. To that end, I would have conversations with her now about the qualities to value in friendship. Use your own friends as an example, dropping a comment casually into conversation: "One reason that Mary is my best friend is because she's loyal. She always has my back. I really value that in a friend." This can lead to talking about tricking -- that that is not a quality you value in a friend because it means you can't always trust or believe the friend. Use the classic "Boy- who -cried- wolf" story. (There's a reason the story has survived generations -- eventually, kids get it.)

The girls may drift apart on their own, or, when your daughter reaches that level of cognition, she may choose a new best friend not because this girl is a bad person, but because this quality is not one she admires. In the meantime, the friendship sometimes works. Let it be.