Photo: Carmen Cheung
Watching the movie E.T. when I was 10 really upped my faking-sick game. Once I saw Elliott heat the thermometer against a bare light bulb in order to spend the day with his new alien friend, I realized I’d discovered a foolproof way to skip school.
From then on, when I hadn’t studied for a spelling test or if I just wanted to chill out eating Campbell’s soup and watching Star Trek reruns, I simply claimed I had a fever and let electricity inflate my temperature.
Like losing a front tooth or falling out of a tree, pretending to be sick to stay home is an elementary school rite of passage. To prove the point, my teenage daughter recently confessed that she invented cold symptoms to get out of school one day back in grade three. I don’t remember this, but apparently I was on to the con—my daughter says I refused to let her watch TV that day and made her stay in bed instead.
Even though many children try it and it’s developmentally appropriate for school-aged kids, malingering still puts parents in an awkward position. Do you call their bluff and send them off or let them stay home and derail your day? And what if you sent them to school and they were, in fact, sick? It’s even more complicated in the COVID era, when a child who fakes a cough to avoid gym class or a math quiz can quickly spark a series of events that disrupts the routines of their entire cohort and their families—or, if that cough was real and your kid is actually sick, it could cause an even worse cascade of events. Ultimately, it falls on parents to figure out if their child is truly unwell and then make a call. But how?
As parents, we know when our kids are sick sick. The vomiting and diarrhea, sky-high fever and flushed skin, zombielike lethargy, hacking cough or green boogers—these symptoms just don’t lie. It’s the unobservable symptoms that give us pause. “If I just scroll through what I’ve seen over the years when children are pretending, the common complaints would be ‘I have a headache’ or ‘I have a sore belly’ or another one is where supposedly they cannot walk,” says Peter Nieman, a Calgary-based paediatrician.
When parents relent and let the child stay home (when they suspect their kid is faking), there is often a miraculous recovery. The child who claims she has an upset tummy promptly eats a plate of eggs and bacon as though she’s forgotten about her nausea, for example.
Nieman urges parents to look for observable secondary symptoms that support the child’s primary complaint. If a child says she has a headache that’s combined with dizziness or sleepiness, it’s probably legit. But if the headache victim puts in her ear buds and rocks out to loud music, you may have a faker on your hands.
Jessica Moran, a mom of two in Brantford, Ont., has used this detective technique to determine whether her son Martin, 10, is truly unwell. In the past, he’s trotted out the tummy-ache excuse because Mom works from home and he’s seen a day off as an opportunity to play video games.
“He was smart enough to make the symptoms vague,” says Moran. She would observe Martin’s behaviour at breakfast (Did he wince in pain with each bite or gobble it down?) and take his temperature. If everything checked out, she sent him off to school. “I told him that once he was there, if his symptoms escalated, he could talk to the office, who would contact me to come and get him. The office never called.” Still, she did sometimes question herself and her decision.
There are many reasons children pretend to be sick. Beyond conjuring an illness to get out of school or avoid sports practice, kids might fake it due to a situational factor such as a new baby in the home or a sibling who’s sick (so they want to stay home, too). “Also, honestly, I think kids are just tired sometimes,” says Sarah Rosensweet, a Toronto-based parenting coach. “Five days a week, eight hours a day, 10 months a year. That’s a lot of school. Sometimes kids miss their parents because they don’t have enough time to connect.” In fact, Rosensweet is a big proponent of what she calls “home days” (sometimes called mental health days). Her mom let her have days off as a child, and she’s carried on the tradition with her own three children.
There’s a big difference between a child who’s just not feeling it every once in a while and one who develops a sore throat and headache every Monday at 7 a.m. When an imaginary ailment surfaces regularly, it’s a red flag, say experts. “It can be like the tip of an iceberg,” says Nieman, who sees a lot of stressed-out, anxious and depressed kids as young as five or six. “Dig a little bit deeper, see if the kid is happy, find out about bullies.”
Rosensweet recommends speaking with a teacher to see how your child is doing overall. Are there any social problems? Do they have friends? How are they doing with school work? “Another reason kids might want to stay home is if they’re having trouble with academics,” says Rosensweet. “Maybe they have an undiagnosed learning disability. They might feel like school is hard but they can’t explain why.” Maybe they just aren’t getting along well with their teacher this year or simply don’t love all the school work.
Kathryn Grossman* nearly flipped her lid when her seven-year-old son, Jared*, turned up “sick” in the school office not once but three times over the course of three weeks at the beginning of the 2020 school year. The first two times, he claimed to have a headache and stomach ache, so Grossman picked him up from school and brought him home—only to watch him head straight for the snacks and iPad. He did remember to act sick whenever she asked how he was feeling throughout the day, though.
After the second incident, Grossman spoke to Jared before bed about the importance of being honest about his symptoms. “I told him that pretending to be sick is never OK, but especially now; if he pretends he is sick, his teacher and friends might think he has COVID, and that might scare them,” she says. She also explained that others might worry about catching COVID from him. Unfortunately, the grade two student wouldn’t confess, says his mom. “He got defensive and insisted he didn’t pretend.”
The third time, Jared complained he was winded and couldn’t breathe during gym class. This time, Grossman opted to leave him at school after speaking with the school secretary, who said he seemed fine. The faking hasn’t happened again.
Grossman thinks that a general dislike of school academics—combined with a pattern of more screen time at home over the spring and summer (because: COVID)—prompted Jared to see if he could ditch class by pretending to be sick. She also believes the faking finally stopped when he settled into a school routine, and possibly because he realized his parents weren’t falling for it anymore.
Even if you’re pretty sure you’re being conned, experts advise letting your child stay home, if at all possible. That’s a tough message for working parents to hear, but as the pandemic rages on, there’s just too much at stake. Not to mention the optics of sending a child to school who’s complaining about a sore throat or upset stomach—no one wants to be that parent. “In the time of COVID, it’s best to be very cautious, just to be safe,” says Nieman.
If you’re 100 percent certain it’s an act, though, it’s still not necessarily best to call them out as lying. They’re likely to double down. Instead, opt for a gentler version of tough love. “Focus less on whether or not they’re telling the truth and more on the fact that they have to go to school,” says Rosensweet. “Sometimes we have to do hard things even when we have a headache.”
Another tactic that seems to stop faking in its tracks, say experts, is making sick days ridiculously boring: no treats, no screens, just rest. Kristen Halpen, a mom in Calgary, credits this strategy with ensuring that her two sons have never (to her knowledge) faked a fever, cold or upset stomach. “I think setting the stage pre-pandemic for sick days, their isolation and a lack of entertainment—no TV, no electronics—has worked and will help mitigate sick says into the future,” she says. “Knock on wood.”
At the end of the day, we’re all just getting through this pandemic, and although a mental health day could be disruptive to your routine, it could really help your kid. “Always remind yourself that your child is doing the best they can,” says Rosensweet. “They’re not giving you a hard time—they’re having a hard time. They’re not just trying to mess up your day. There’s probably something going on, so try to be empathetic.”
*Names have been changed