Q: We have three children, bli ayin hara, and the middle one is a four-year-old girl. She is very bright and very observant. She is also a little hyperactive. But we are noticing more and more how she lies a lot of the time. Sometimes these falsehoods involve things that never happened, which may be due to difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality. But sometimes when we ask her if she was the one who took such-and-such item, she’ll lie to us that she hasn’t got it even when she is clearly holding the object behind her back! It’s happening quite often now, and getting out of hand. Will she just outgrow this behavior, or do we have to tackle it now? And if so, how?
A: A parent can never rely on a child’s outgrowing negative behavior. Though many children mature naturally, ignoring problematic behavior and hoping it will go away is not a realistic response.
Children of all birth orders exhibit such conduct; being a middle child is not necessarily a factor in the case you described.
Though a parent’s natural reaction to an obvious lie might be “Miriam, are you telling the emes?”, this is often unhelpful. A child does not wish to be caught telling an untruth and will shy away from such a question.
If your daughter is beginning to seek negative attention, she needs to see examples of positive attention on a daily basis. A four-year-old works well with a behavior modification chart titled, for example, “Miriam, our tzaddekes,” and being rewarded for specific good actions with stickers which she chooses herself.
When Miriam tells a non-truth, her parent can seem confused and concerned and look away without commenting. If the parent acts sad or disappointed, the child will sense those feelings without their having to be verbalized. A parent’s validation is important to a young child; direct confrontation will only add fuel to the fire and the fabrication will often continue.
Another response is to have a “heart-to-heart” talk with your daughter in a neutral time space. This conversation should be undertaken when she is neither happy nor sad; a person does not want to hear about her problems in either state of emotion. In this time — perhaps while playing with Lego or Clics — a parent should speak of her concern about the child’s conduct and why her daughter might feel the need to behave this way. This is not meant to be a mussar session, but a desire to better understand the child. More often than not, at four years old a child will just shrug her shoulders when asked about what prompts this behavior.
If the child has no answer or tries to change the subject out of embarrassment, the parent can suggest ways to remind the child to be honest. Perhaps a password can be used to remind the child, when not behaving appropriately, to return to desirable behavior.
If a child agrees that a parent should use humor as a response in such a circumstance, it can take away the embarrassment, and the child can still change her behavior and maintain a sense of dignity. However, if humor is used too often, a child can take advantage of this response and use it as an invitation to continue such negative behaviors (i.e., this behavior doesn’t really bother my parents too much).
If a child really lives in the world of her imagination at age four, the response would be more direct and simple. A parent could say: “Are you really sure that this happened?” with sincerity and lack of judgment.