Q: My five-year-old son has been frequently lying. The latest incident involved taking a money clip from his dad (not the cash, just the clip). But the worst was when he called 911 (fighting with his brother and pretending to call an “agent” on him), the police arrived, and he denied having done it. We’ve explained it’s better to tell the truth, and face us getting a little mad, than it is to lie and have us get really angry.
A: The most important information you’ve given me is that your son is five. Five-year-olds live in a world still full of fantasy; they become superheroes at a moment’s notice, talk to their dolls and the wall without any self-consciousness, and create elaborate scenarios to explain whatever they find confusing or unpleasant.
Morally, a five-year-old has notions of right and wrong, which are externally controlled — meaning he’s entirely influenced by considerations of punishment and disapproval, which can easily be lost when the provider of the disapproval or punishment is absent. For example, a preschooler might remember that mommy said not to touch the cake or play with the CDs, but if the cake or CDs look inviting and mommy isn’t around — he might not be able to resist temptation. After the deed, most five-year-olds will lie because they’re afraid mommy will be mad at them. At this age, children often say things like “Batman came to visit and he was really hungry, so I gave him a piece of cake,” or simply flat out deny they got into the CDs, even if caught in the act.
It’s entirely possible that your son has been told so many times at school or on TV to call 911 in an emergency that he couldn’t resist. It is also telling that your son took the money clip, but not the money. Cash doesn’t mean much to a five-year-old, but shiny, metal things have great value because they could be used to bribe a monster or zap an alien!
The development of morals and self-control is a long, slow process. Patient reminders and explanations about why it’s important to do something (or refrain from doing something) and lots of praise when he complies will yield the best results. When parents become impatient or have too high expectations of their children’s behaviour, kids can feel a great deal of shame, which is hard on their self-esteem, or they can become defiant as a result of losing confidence in their ability to please their parents.