I stared at the toast lying on top of the trash in disbelief. I was ticked. My four year old told me he had eaten all of his toast and wanted something else to eat. I went into the dining room where he was eating his peaches.
“I thought you told me you ate all your toast?”
“No, you threw it in the trash.”
“No, I didn’t. I ate it all.”
I took him by the hand and led him to the trash. “Look, there’s your toast.” He looked at me like he really didn’t know how it had gotten there.
This wasn’t the first time I’d caught him in a lie and I was frustrated. I couldn’t understand it. I don’t punish my children. I don’t reward them either. What do they have to fear by telling me the truth? My 7 year old had never lied to me. I really believe he’s physically incapable of it. It would alter his universe of science and order too much. But my 4 year old was born with his own personality and had no qualms about chaos. I felt connected to my youngest child. Our relationship was good. From all of my research and involvement with AP, I naively believed that if my parenting was focused on relationship, things like this wouldn’t happen. So why was he lying to me?
This was a real test of my AP philosophy. I didn’t want to damage our relationship, but how could I practically enforce that lying is wrong without inflicting some sort of punishment? What I really wanted to do was spank him, put him in time out, ground him from food, and take away his playdates for six-months. But I was keen enough to my own inner-workings to realize that these were the tapes of my past, reminding me of what would have happened to me if I had dared lie to my parents. This was cultural pressure telling me that I must enforce strict boundaries or my child would turn into a social deviant.
I turned to my fellow AP leaders for help. The replies were encouraging and supportive. No one told me to lock him up for the next 10 years. One leader pointed me towards a study entitled “Parenting Tips: Praise Can Be Bad; Lying is Normal”. It was a long read and I disagreed with some of the conclusions, but what I learned gave me much-needed developmental background on my 4 year old. I found out that lying is a stage that most typically-developing children go through and that punishment only makes it worse. In fact, children who were punished dug their heels in further and refused to reconcile their actions with reality.
I also learned about something called “wish fulfillment” from the other leaders. This is when a child tells what they want to be true because they hope that saying it will make it true. My son wanted the toast to be gone, so he said it was. All of this gave me the information I needed to act, and to do so within the philosophy that I knew to be right.
So for the next few months, whenever my son told a lie, I would repeat what he said framing it as a wish. He hated taking the time to wash his hands when he was done in the restroom. When he came out, I would remind him to wash his hands. He would tell me that he did and I would respond, “I know you wish you had washed your hands, but I see that your hands are still dry. Please go get those germs off.” I acknowledged what he wanted to be true while, at the same time, establishing the expectation that reality prevailed. Pretty soon, the lying stopped. I don’t believe it was because I necessarily responded in the right way, but because I gave him room to grow through this stage. And our relationship didn’t suffer.
Understanding developmental milestones can give us the information that we need to understand our children and to continue to operate within the framework of AP. Of course, all children are different, and each meets milestones at varying stages. Some breeze through them, others stumble; but as parents, we can support them. When you find yourself at your wits’ end, ask yourself about your relationship, but don’t neglect the developmental truth.