Q: In recent weeks, my six-year-old has suddenly become completely untrustworthy, lying, cheating, and stealing whenever she gets a chance. Yesterday we came home from the grocery store and I found that she had stolen some candy! I’m getting worried, not to mention the fact that I’m feeling like a bad parent. What can I do to nip this in the bud?
A: The first thing to do is relax. Child development experts agree that before age three, kids have no clear understanding that these behaviors are wrong. Between three and six, children develop an understanding that lying, cheating, and stealing are wrong and they begin some innocent exploration of limits, lying about little things, like whether they’ve washed their hands or gone to the bathroom.
Starting at around six, these experiments often stray into less innocuous territory-lying about more important matters, stealing more substantial things. It’s the next stage in a natural progression of learning about morality, and all children (regardless of the stories your friends tell you about their kids), do some experimenting with lying, cheating, and stealing. Most manage to avoid falling headlong into a life of crime.
Your next assignment it to keep from overreacting while letting your daughter know that what she’s doing is unacceptable. To start with, she should bring the candy she stole back to the store and apologize to the manager. If you keep the boundaries firm and the consequences clear and appropriate, chances are this phase will eventually pass. And don’t underestimate the power of your disapproval. Simply letting your child know that you expected more from her can be more effective and long-lasting than any punishment.
At the same time, have some conversations with your daughter that will help her develop moral judgment- something far more powerful than the simple ability to follow rules.
Look her in the eye and ask these three questions:
"How does what you just did make you feel about yourself?"
"How would you feel if someone did that to you?"
"Why is it wrong to [lie, cheat, steal]?"
Guide her answers if necessary, noting the loss of the trust of others, encouraging empathy, and most of all helping her to recognize the damage she’s doing to her own self-image. It’s important to end these conversations with a statement of your continued confidence in her: "You’re an honest person with a good heart. I know that, and I trust you." Most children value this tremendously and won’t want to let you down.
If you’ve tried all of the above techniques and your child doesn’t seem to be shaking the pattern of dishonest behavior, start looking for a cause. Antisocial behaviors can increase during times of stress, such as a divorce or death in the family, or if the child feels she needs more attention. If you know something like this is going on, try giving your daughter a little extra attention or have a chat about how things are going. Bedtime is an ideal time for this. One caveat: Tread lightly. In most cases it’s probably better to do a little general fishing than to dive right in with something as direct as, "Are you stealing because you need more attention?" That’s a great conversation stopper.
If the problem still persists or your child slips into more destructive behaviors (and especially if she shows no evidence of remorse), you may have a more serious problem on your hands-one you can’t handle at home. Take the issue up with your child’s pediatrician and ask if a counseling referral is in order.
Finally, never forget how important it is to set a good example. Our kids are watching us like hawks. If you lie about speeding, call in sick when you are not really sick, or talk about the shortcuts you took on your taxes, don’t be at all surprised to see your kids testing out the same techniques.