Dear 1-on-1 Coaching: I have a five year old who tells stories all the time. Last week, he went to school and told the kids his dad was an astronaut. (He’s really a cell phone salesman.) My son also has an 8 foot tall friend who follows him around named Woody. We’ve told him that none of this is true and we give him consequences for lying, but he still continues to do it. What should we do?
Some parents believe there is no difference between lying and what child development professionals call "imaginative play." The truth is, imaginary friends, tall tales, and exaggeration are part of healthy childhood development. Playing make believe, having imaginary friends – all of these things help a child to learn about her environment, and make sense of her place in it. Creative play and story-telling helps a child's brain develop the connections it needs to solve problems and put things together in new ways. Certainly, if your child uses her creative stories to try and get herself out of trouble, or to win friends by creating a more "exciting" family, you'll need to address those issues clearly and directly.
We could all use some help in figuring out how to respond positively to creativity without condoning its mis-use – think of all the self-help books aimed at helping adults reclaim their lost childhood creativity! Fortunately, there are ways to encourage both honesty and creativity in your kids.
Younger children are naturally creative; how you respond to their "creations" either helps to develop their creativity, or dampen it. Let's say that your younger child tells fantastic stories about how the pizza delivery man is really a super-hero in disguise, and when he delivers your pizza, he is actually checking to be sure he knows how to get into your house if you should call him for help. Is that true? Is it a lie that needs to be corrected? If you tell your child, "That's a lie and you know it. If you keep lying, there will be no TV tonight," you have shut down their creativity, and you've lost a chance to explore larger issues together.
What could you do instead? In this example, you might use the opportunity to encourage your child's creativity, and ask some questions: "Wow, that is a really interesting idea about our pizza guy. What kind of super-hero stuff does he do? "Well, he comes in and rescues kids from burning buildings and if they have someone mean break into their house in the middle of the night." That's a really important job. Do you think that might happen here? I mean, that our house could catch on fire, or someone mean might break in"
Do you see where this is leading? Most likely, your child does not have an actual fear of fire or someone breaking in. If he does, you can address that directly. If he seems to just be telling a creative story, you might say, "What else could the pizza guy do? How else could he help people? What would you do if you were a super-hero?" This kind of imaginative play with your child could even lead to a discussion about how people help each other. What a great use of the imagination! And, by engaging in positive ways with your child's creative mind, you may help guide the direction their creativity takes.
But what if your child doesn't stop there? What if the pizza delivery guy broke in last night and took your child's homework, and then they used all of dad's cologne, and knocked over mom's music stand. Creativity is one thing, but telling stories to get oneself out of trouble is another. If this is an issue for your child, you might sit down with them and say, "We notice that when you break the rules, you make up stories about what happened so that you won't get into trouble. You need to know that you are responsible for following the rules. Telling us that someone else did it is not going to solve the problem." Stay focused on the behavior your child needs to change, for example, keeping out of dad's closet, or finishing homework on time. Have him come up with what he will do differently next time to help himself follow the rules.
Lying and consequences
If lying is a persistent issue, you might need to talk with your child about what he can do differently when he is tempted to lie. Remind him that lying will not keep him out of trouble if he breaks the rules. To help him change his behavior, you might give him a separate consequence for lying. Just be sure to keep the consequence consistent and short-term – that way, you won't have to come up with something new every time. And remember, telling kids that lying is a moral issue is unlikely to help them change their behaviors – kids just don't think that way. Certainly, having a family discussion about moral issues is important; it just simply isn't effective in motivating kids to change, in and of itself. (For more on how to address lying, please see How Dare You Lie to Me! How to Deal with a Lying Teen; and Why Kids Tell Lies And What To Do About It.")
Imaginary Friends – are they a cause for concern?
Does your child blame their behavior on someone you can't see While it may be tempting, try not to get into an argument over whether the imaginary friend is "real" or not. That is completely irrelevant. Instead, focus on the rules, and your expectations for your child. If your young child says his imaginary friend broke the rules, not him, you might say, "I appreciate how hard it can be to remind your friends of the rules, but that is your job. If you or Woody break the rule, you will get the consequence, so blaming Woody is not going to keep you out of trouble. Now, what can you do to help Woody remember to stay out of the pantry before dinner?" Remember – stay focused on the behavior at hand. If you challenge your child's imagination, he will likely defend it even more strongly. A tug-of-war over whose "reality" is more real is not going to help your child follow the rules.
If you find that your child is lying to "increase his social standing," so to speak, that also needs to be addressed, but perhaps not in the way you might think. Social skills are challenging for a lot of people – kids and grown-ups alike. Some kids (and grown-ups, too!) lie about themselves or their lives out of social anxiety or discomfort; some just want to be seen as one of the cool kids. The child who routinely brags to other children about made-up events may need some help figuring out how to make friends in more honest and truthful ways. Don't get too caught up in why your child doesn't feel his own life isn't good enough. Instead, work with your child to come up with different things he can say when he is meeting or talking with new friends. And remember, storytelling is part of childhood. For the most part, it is healthy and creative. As your child ages, he and his peers will find different ways of relating to each other – you can help that process by focusing on the skills he needs to be successful.
One more thing – some children do seem to be natural-born story-tellers. Everything that comes out of their mouths is a fantastic yarn about some magical or monumental event. While it can certainly be frustrating and exhausting for a parent to listen to constant stories, you can help to direct your child's natural talent in healthy and appropriate ways. For example, you could let your dramatic child know that she can share one of her stories each evening, after dinner, provided her homework is done. If she starts her story-telling at an inappropriate time, simply redirect her to her "performance hour" after dinner. You could encourage your child to write or draw her stories, instead of speaking them out loud. You could even enroll her in theater camp, or encourage her to write her own comic books. Who knows – encouraging your child's creativity might help them grow up to be someone whose creativity and imagination inspire the rest of the world.