Care and Feeding

My 6-Year-Old Lies All the Time

Well, she doesn’t know the difference between “making up creative stories” and “lying.” Should I worry?

Little girl who looks like she's thinking up her next lie.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 6-year-old daughter is extremely imaginative, loves pretend play, draws constantly, and loves to make up stories. It’s sweet, and being a person who has never felt very creative, I admire her immensely. But one extension of this seems problematic to me, and I’m not quite sure what to do about it. She regularly lies, sometimes really obviously, and sometimes I can’t tell if what she’s saying really happened or not. And if I ask her whether she’s telling the truth, she sometimes changes her story entirely or just makes it more elaborate and seemingly further from the truth. I’m actually not even sure this should be called “lying,” because that implies deliberate badness, when I think often she’s just wanting to contribute to the conversation or answer a question more thoroughly than she has the information to do. Sometimes it’s a harmless detail about a classmate or teacher (“Melissa doesn’t have any sinks in her house!”), and sometimes it’s reporting about conversations with her friends that I’d actually be concerned about depending on whether what she’s saying was true (“We decided that Melissa isn’t allowed to play with us on Fridays”).

I’ve tried telling her that it’s OK if she doesn’t know the answer to something I’m asking and that it’s important to tell each other the truth so we can trust each other. Is this a normal kid thing? Of course! I’m trying to figure out when it moves from being a normal kid thing to being more problematic. Six seems old for this kind of thing. Is it something I need to be concerned about? And how do I respond to these situations? I honestly feel like it’s a barrier in connecting emotionally with my daughter, and I worry about that and how it will develop over time. For what it’s worth, neither her teacher nor my husband seem worried about it, so maybe I’m overthinking all of this and just need to get some perspective.

—Cute or Worrisome?

Dear Cute or Worrisome,

Well, I can tell you that this behavior is not actually out of the norm for a 6-year-old. They’re better at lying than they were a few years ago and also better at creating magical wonderful imaginary worlds. What you need to work on, I think, is helping her distinguish between these two behaviors, so that you can praise and foster one while discouraging the other.

There are approximately 1 million children’s books about telling the truth, from the Berenstain Bears to this particularly helpful tome, which includes games and discussion questions to help figure out when lying is lying and when it’s imaginative play. I recommend adding some of these books into your weekly rotation while you work on this problem.

Encouraging her in her productive imaginative play is key at this time. While you’re firmly discouraging actual lies, give her extra scope and permission to create her myths and world building. Write down her harmless stories in a book for her, and tell her how much fun make-believe is.

When she tells a lie that isn’t in the above category, you’re going to have to really tighten up on imposing consequences. Set her up for success with this, though. If she tells you that she and her friend Amber rode loose in the back of Amber’s mom’s pickup truck, ask her if this is a fun imaginary story to put in her notebook or if it’s the truth. If she says it’s the truth, say, “If I call Amber’s mom, will she say it’s the truth?” so she has a chance to fix her mistake. If it turns out to be a lie, impose whatever consequences you would for any other form of bad behavior.

Kids do emerge from this phase largely honest, if that’s a comfort. I think you’ve only got another year or two to navigate this, which, coincidentally, is also the year or two left where she can really immerse herself wholly in imaginative play. Keep fostering that while discouraging the other. She seems like a good kid who loves imagination and can just get a bit off track returning to real life.

Dear Care and Feeding,

We have a set of friends with kids the same age as our kids who are moving around the corner. In the past, we’ve gotten together every couple months so we haven’t had much conflict. However, we have fairly different parenting styles (i.e., different rules around behavior and food, screen watching, gender roles, etc.) that likely will cause some problems as we see each other more. Any tips on how to make this work?

—Will This Work?

Dear WTW,

Don’t borrow trouble: When and if the conflicts come, you’ll handle them. When they’re older, adopt a strict “my house, my rules” system, which is a great lesson for parents and kids alike. (This system does not apply to dangerous behavior or food allergies or torturing cats.)

• If you missed Friday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am the mother of a nearly-5-year-old boy. My son suffers from epilepsy and he is not toilet trained. He was 90 percent there last year and suffered a setback and we were back to the starting point. We are working on it the best we can.

My problem isn’t with him, however, but the judgmental parents around me. Frequently in conversation, someone will talk about toilet training their child and say, “I just wasn’t going to have little Pilsner be one of those 5-year-olds still in diapers!” Even my mother-in-law, who knows about his issues, has been reluctant to change him when she babysits, including shaming him for having “bad pants” (which is a bit of an Annie Wilkes turn of phrase for me). It is no picnic to change a 5-year-old, I get that. But he literally cannot help it, and I am frustrated with the lack of compassion.

I know I can’t be the only parent dealing with this. I don’t want to have to explain his seizures and his regression to everyone, but I am starting to feel defensive and angry with these people who just don’t get it. How can I deal with this?

—Mom on the Verge of Losing It

Dear Mom,

Your mother-in-law loses her babysitting privileges until she straightens up and flies right. “Bad pants” is a messed-up thing to say and will cause nothing but problems.

With friends, I would send a sickeningly kind and sweet email explaining that your son’s condition has resulted in a temporary regression, and you find those comments hurtful, thus heaping coals of fire on their heads.

With strangers, say, “I used to think that, but then I heard someone say it to a stranger at the supermarket and his mother broke down sobbing because her child had a medical condition requiring longer diaper use, and now I never, ever say such a thing. Can you imagine?” and then sweep away.

This protects your son’s medical privacy from strangers and also twists the knife a bit.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a mother of four kids, one of whom is on the autism spectrum. I’m writing because my non-ASD daughter is in kindergarten and is replicating the flapping arms of another student when talking about exciting things. If I didn’t have a child on the spectrum I would not have noticed this other student having many clear signs of ASD including flapping and stimming. (It is honestly not my business if they have been diagnosed.) When I asked my daughter what she was doing, she simply said the other student does this when excited, so now she wants to also. She obviously has no idea that what she’s doing can be hurtful, and so far the teacher has not mentioned to me that it is a problem. Should I discourage these behaviors? How should I go about doing that without sounding intolerant of differences or without accidentally disclosing a diagnosis that this other child may or may not have? I’m trying to find the right balance of respect, boundaries, and inclusion, and I don’t quite know what direction to go.

—Monkey See, Monkey Do

Dear MSMD,

Let her flap. Kids on or off the spectrum should be allowed to stim/flap to their heart’s content (barring self-injurious behavior), and any care provider or therapist who is still saying “quiet hands” needs to be out of a job.

We all stim, all of us, in one way or another. Some of us tap our fingers or toes, some of us bite our nails, and if you hit your thumb with a hammer, you’ll flap like wild.

If she’s happy, and she’s not whapping anyone as she flaps, let her enjoy it to her heart’s content. Adult autistics have spoken beautifully about the joy of flapping, and the pain of having it taken from them, and your neurotypical kid should get to enjoy it too.

Enjoy your lovely family.