Child Caring

'Sneaky' behavior irks mom

Hi Barbara,
Love your column. I'm wondering how much I should be worrying about/working to correct my son's sneakiness. He's 5, so at his age he's pretty terrible at it, so it's been easy to catch him in the act and discuss it. Sometimes it's food or using the iPad or, when friends are over, doing something 'forbidden' - going into a room we asked them to stay out of, etc.

For the first 2 examples, I say things like, "You don't need to sneak - just ask me. I'll probably say yes, but sometimes I'll say no, and I want you to understand that in our family, we are not sneaky about things." He says, in typical 5-year-old, fashion, "I knooooow" and laughs.

There is just something about sneakiness and lying that I personally cannot stand, so I'm trying not to let my own personal strong feelings on the issue cloud my dealings with him on this issue. But it's a characteristic that makes me absolutely crazy. I'm sure I won't be able to fully stop it, especially because I've overheard myself that some of the incidents are him being peer-pressured (and caving immediately), but how can I decrease this? Is this an age-related thing?


From: Jane, Duxbury, MA

Continue Reading Below

Hi Jane,

Yes, absolutely, this is a stage of development, ie, pretty typical behavior. That doesn't make it any easier to deal with, or to tolerate.

As you've noticed, a 5- to 7-year-old's motivation is almost always (in order of likelihood and importance) to impress a peer, to challenge authority, or to get out of an awkward social situation. All of these are fueled by a growing sense of personal power, hardly ever malicious but tricky:

The 6-year-old comes home from school. "Mom, the teacher brought in yak burgers for us to taste today. It's a nutritional experiment the school signed up for!" Just as your skepticism is beginning to fade, he pounces: "Haha! I tricked you!" As in, "Whoa! I have the power to trick my parents!"

Is that really sneaky? Is it lying? Or is it just a child being a child?

How you respond depends on your perception. When it's obviously a "trick," label it so he knows it's a game you both can play: "Wow, You got me! Very clever." Then toss one back to him: "Well, guess what's for dessert! There's was a special at the store and I decided to buy it: chocolate -covered ants."

For a child to tell a lie, he clearly had to want to deceive you, not to just toy with you and for that, he needs to be able to cognitively make the distinction. That could happen at 5 or 6, but only you can be the judge.

Here are some guidelines for dealing with lying:

Establish clear family values: "In our family, we value honesty and truthfulness." It's a line worth repeating every so often and a behavior worth modeling. Let's say your lose your spouse's baseball cap. Tell him, "I could pretend I don't know where your baseball cap, but the truth is, I borrowed it and left it at the park. I'm so sorry." Then he moans and groans, but says, "Thanks for the honesty. I appreciate that." Hug. That creates an environment that supports truth-telling. In that vein, when your child starts to say the dog's tail knocked the lamp off the table, and switches to the truth, tell him: "I'm sad you broke the lamp, but I'm proud of you for telling the truth. Let's clean it up together."

Don't accuse him of lying. That only tends to entrench a child in his lie. If you suspect it wasn't the dog's tail that broke the lamp, tell him, "I'm not sure if you are telling the truth. Before you say anything else, take some time to think about this."

If giving him time to re-think doesn't get a more honest answer, try this: "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." If the behavior is punishable but he comes clean, show tolerance: "I'm glad you told the truth. Unfortunately, the lamp is still broken. Since you were honest, I'll go easy on you. You need to earn some money to help replace it."

For a child to not lie, he needs to see you as understanding and approachable so he can conclude, "Even if I do something stupid, my parents will probably understand. I can tell them the truth." As he gets older, that will be even more important, which is why it's so important to establish this message early.