A while ago I visited a friend and her family. One afternoon I found myself in the kitchen with Janine, her lively little 4-year- old. She was playing with a puzzle and I was helping prepare dinner and her mother had gone into the garden. She suddenly looked around and pushed a small stool against the cupboards. She glanced behind, climbed up and reached to the back of the shelf from which she pulled a chocolate.
Holding it tightly, she jumped back on to the floor, pushed the stool back to its proper position and hurried over to her play area. The chocolate was hastily unwrapped and devoured and the wrapper was immediately buried in the garbage can. She returned to her puzzle.
I was a visitor and knew full well by the look on her face and her hurried and furtive movements that the hidden candy was out of bounds and this little girl knew it. I neither said nor did anything.
In retrospect I should have immediately wondered with her if she was into something she should not have been, and that maybe Mommy had warned her not to eat the candy. I should have suggested that she’d feel bad if she did something she knew Mommy wouldn’t like.
Instead I watched with fascination as she found an inventive, rather athletic way to reach the forbidden candy. The truth of the matter was that now we both felt guilty – Janine for breaking a rule even if she didn’t get caught, and I for allowing it to happen without some gentle, adult intervention.
Who among us can honestly claim to have never been sneaky about anything – particularly if we define it as doing something forbidden, on the sly?
Sneakiness and lying in young children often infuriates parents and teachers. It’s interesting that in adulthood our own sneaky histories are not only remembered in great detail but often humorously shared with friends. We remember exactly what we did and whether we were caught or got away with it. It was the guilt that imprinted these memories.
It’s unwise to accuse a 4-year old of being a sneak or if, when caught and she denies it, a liar. These are strong words to use and aren’t any more help than looking away – as did I.
Adults rightly feel an obligation to discourage children from being sneaky or telling lies, and there are lessons to be taught about rules and the truth. But nothing is to be gained by severely punishing them when they transgress.
Severe admonitions simply result in a small child’s trying to survive the fear of a parent’s anger or the possibility of being spanked – rather than feeling bad about what they had done and regretting it. Terrifying children with angry words and punishment might well drive them further into more inventive sneakiness and lying and more creative ways to avoid being caught.
Young children’s sneakiness can be attributed to wanting something that is missing or forbidden, an urge they have that can’t be satisfied. Their wishes are very strong at this young age; having those wishes denied results in angry feelings. They feel they haven’t been able to get enough when being aboveboard with Mom and Dad, so the impulse to get what they want trumps the newly learned rules and all other feelings.
When caught, young children often lie. It’s an indication that they wish they had done the right thing and, rather than feeling uncomfortable about what they have done, they invent a new reality that would seem to make things better: they lie. They really don’t want to deliberately deceive others in order to “get away” with their forbidden acts.
Believe it or not, this lie can often be a confession, because the discomfort of a sneaky act or the lie that follows is almost more than they can bear.
By 4 years of age Janine already knew many of the family “rules” and knew the candy was not to be taken without permission. She knew her mother would be angry and would certainly scold her had she been caught mid-theft. She also predicted that if she had asked, she would have been denied the candy.
So how to approach your young child when you’re sure this sneaky behavior will land her in prison one day? Contrary to the way I reacted to Janine’s behavior, it would have been far more helpful for me to talk to her about taking something forbidden and about how bad she would feel inside if she did.
Recognizing with her how much she wanted the forbidden candy, for example, and how hard it was not to grab that piece when no one was looking might have helped her hear me. Suggesting we talk to Mom about a time when she might have one would be important or if she can’t, making that clear and finding a substitute food or activity.
Approval by parents is very powerful in young children. So much depends on this strong relationship and a child’s wish to keep it close. It often leads to children denying themselves something they badly want just to maintain it. At first it works when the parents are nearby, but not when they are absent. It’s for this reason baby sitters can have difficulty with a child’s behavior. Eventually it becomes the child’s job to keep the rules in mind even in the absence of parents. But that is a skill that takes time to learn.
So take heart and don’t fret if your preschooler takes a wrapped chocolate from the shelf when she thinks you’re not watching, or if she denies it when caught. Try not to accuse her or jump to conclusions. Also be aware that nighttime fears often show up as a sign of your child’s inner worries about naughtiness or temptations. Alone in bed, these forbidden acts surface and she fears punishment. As hard as it is, allow her to let you know when she has been sneaky or has lied, and do your best to keep the communication open.
With your help, as your child gets older, the rules will be remembered and her behavior will be modified. If all goes well, by around 5 years or 6 years of age her conscience will be all-powerful and she will be consumed with rules and whether things are fair.
It’s a big developmental step for your child and you can take pride in how she then begins to manage these temptations and any need to be sneaky or to lie when caught will eventually diminish or disappear.