When Your Preschooler Lies
Hi to Amy from another Amy!
Congrats on the 3rd baby on the way! I have 3 myself, a 5 year old girl, a 3 year old girl, and an 8 month old boy. I love your writing and you give great advice. I really hope you can help me.
Last week a box of Girl Scout cookies went missing. I thought the 3 year old might have “relocated” them (like she “relocated” my keys last week) until we found the empty box and cookie crumbs stuffed under our couch in the basement. Our 5 year old vehemently denied eating them. Lied straight to our faces, pretty convincingly for 2 days, until we finally told her we knew she stole the cookies and lied about it. Then she cracked and admitted the whole thing. We took away all desserts/sweet snacks (of which we don’t have many) for 15 days. The cookies were Tagalongs which come 15 to a box, so a day of punishment for each cookie eaten. We also took away TV/movies in the basement for lying to us, also for 15 days. We explained why stealing and lying are wrong, she had to pay her tooth fairy money to replace the box, we seemed to have a chastened and penitent little girl. Done deal, right?
WRONG. This weekend I caught her eating SUGAR! OUT OF THE BAG! We had all the discussions again. We yelled. We explained. We hugged. We seemed to understand each other.
Today while I was nursing the baby and putting him down for his nap she stole her dad’s Nutty Bars and ate them in her room. They were on a high shelf in our pantry so getting them must have been an involved process.
She just keeps stealing sweets! And lying about it! Okay, maybe this does not sound like a huge problem (I mean, as kids haven’t we all snuck cookies and candy?) but I have completely run out of ideas at this point. She seems to understand what we’re talking about but SHE JUST KEEPS DOING IT!!! I even thought about completely taking all sweets out of the house but what can I do if she’s eating sugar out of the bag? Put a lock on the pantry door? I always make sure she has plenty of healthy snacks, she never goes hungry. Unless it’s an hour until a meal I give her choices of fruit, veggies, pretzels, popcorn, cheese sticks, etc.
If you have any ideas please help me. I’m at my wit’s end!
Amy, AKA Sweet Tooth’s Mommy
We just caught Noah in his Very First Lie Ever this week. (Falsifying results on his reward/sticker/behavior chart.) I include this anecdote for two reasons:
1) I don’t yet have a ton of experience under my belt with lying yet, other than the fact that I still distinctly remember telling some whoppers as a child.
2) Lying — or having difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality, or when it’s appropriate to engage in fantasy/”not-real” talk and when it’s important to tell Mommy what actually really happened — is a very, very common thing at five years old. Some kids start struggling with it even earlier, and although by five you may see the little brain-wheels turning as your child realizes that they can maaaaaybe avoid punishment and consequences by simply indulging in a little “I’ll just PRETEND I was a good girl” storytelling, it’s still not necessarily a sign that your child is turning into a manipulative pathological liar.
The punishments you meted out — monetary dings for the stealing aspect, no sweets for the rule-breaking aspect, and loss of TV privilege for the lying part — along with a loving heart-to-heart about WHY stealing and lying is wrong, sound to me like a situation pretty well-handled.
But then. The eating-sugar-out-a-bag thing. The climbing-up-to-dangerous-heights-to-obtain-candy thing. Especially in light of the fact that your daughter does seem to be listening and comprehending your lectures and explanations, and isn’t stealing anything other than highly refined sugary snacks (like say, toys from school or stores), raises some red flags for me that have nothing to do with a behavioral problem. It sounds…too compulsive, and (correct me if I’m wrong) otherwise out of character for your daughter?
Honestly, before worrying too much more about lying, I’d call your pediatrician and see about getting some blood work done. Something nutritional might be going on here.
If a child was behaving this way over something that didn’t taste good — like a craving for dirt or dishwasher detergent — we’d all probably yell PICA! and hustle her in for a check of her vitamin/mineral levels. Sure, sugar tastes good, but the quantities she’s eating should still technically result in tummy aches or some physical consequence afterwards. (Puking up seven stolen cupcakes’ worth of colored icing, anyone?) That, combined with parental consequences for the stealing/sneaking, should be at least a minor deterrence against repeat offenses. But it sounds like the opposite is happening, as your daughter’s craving/need for sugar simply compels her to seek out crazier options (the bag) or more dangerous ones (treats that require climbing, stacking, potential for falls).
If her blood sugars and nutritional levels do indeed check out and your pediatrician doesn’t find an underlying medical problem, you probably will want to drastically change how sugar and sweets are stored at your house. Get rid of them completely, wherever possible. Stock up on snacks without refined sugar. Then move everything else — like the baking supplies — into a cabinet with a lock. (There’s baby-proofing and then there’s child-proofing. I promise you won’t be the only preschool/kindergarten parent taking similar measures.) Be extra careful about using sugar and sweet-tasting foods as a reward/bribe or banning them completely from all circumstances, since then you’re just making it seem extra forbidden and worth sneaking around for. Sweets can be off-limits at home because of the repeated stealing/lying incidents, but it’s probably okay to treat her to an ice cream cone or something while you’re out as a family and she asks nicely.
Head to the childrens’ section of the bookstore and library and get some books about lying and/or stealing. (I still remember these oldies from my own childhood — The Berenstain Bears and the Truth, The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food, and The Berenstain Bears and the Double Dare. Clearly, those bears were my parents’ go-to family for Important Illustrated Lessons About Things.) If you sense that she’s ready to get out of the compulsive sweet-stealing habit, you can try relaxing the rules at home. In the meantime, though, I’d continue to simply reinforce the whole “lying/stealing is wrong” message whenever you can…while removing the bulk of temptation for your own sanity’s sake. (Read Amalah’s update in the comments section).
Editor’s Note: I would highly recommend that you read the comments section where there are very insightful thoughts, helpful suggestions and differing opinions being shared by other parents. Thank you dear readers for offering your experiences and understanding to the conversation.Published March 8, 2011. Last updated July 19, 2017.