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Growing Concerns - 5/24/06 (05/24/2006)
By Dr. Martha Erickson

Question: When I take my 2-year-old daughter to friends' homes, she starts doing all kinds of things she would never do at home. I can't understand why...she knows better! It seems like she's trying to make me mad.

Answer: It's unlikely that your 2-year-old is being naughty just to make you mad. There probably are several reasons for your child's behavior. Children at the toddler stage aren't yet able to generalize well from one situation to another. For example, even though you teach your daughter not to play with the knobs on your TV, she may need to be taught that all over again with a new TV in a new place. Also, toddlers' long-term memory is not well developed, so they may not remember your instructions from one day or one week to the next.

It is also important to remember that little ones can't control their physical movements the way older children can. They may hit or handle things roughly - not out of bad intentions, but because they can't move their hands slowly and smoothly. When they're over-excited, as they often are at a friend's house, they have even less control, both physically and emotionally. Some of your daughter's behavior also may be her way of expressing her frustration at not being the focus of your attention while you try to visit with your friend.

When you're wondering why your daughter is doing things that you're sure you've taught her not to, it's important to step back and ask, "What's really going on here? Does she remember what I've taught her? Does she know the rule applies even at someone else's house? Is she feeling unsettled or left out in this new situation?" Let her know calmly and clearly what you expect of her, make sure she has fun and interesting things to do, let her know you are there for her, and be patient with her. She is growing and learning and, with your gentle encouragement, will soon become a much more gracious guest!

Question: Lately we have caught our daughter telling lies. I don't know if this is a sign that something is wrong with her or if it's a normal thing kids go through. What is the best way to confront it?

Answer: Lying is one of those behaviors that really shake parents up -- and, in the long run, can undermine trust. However, the age of the child is a major consideration in deciding what to make of a child's lying.

Since you don't say how old your daughter is, I can't tell you if her lying is cause for concern or not. For example, preschool children don't understand the difference between truth and fantasy, so sometimes they tell whopping tales without knowing they're "lying." Even when children learn to distinguish between truth and fiction, it takes a while for them to learn the value of honesty.

Many times lying is a way to avoid getting in trouble for doing something naughty -- the classic, "I didn't do it!" kind of lie. And, sometimes, young children tell stories that they wish were true, such as, "Grandpa's going to take me to Disneyland" or "Mommy and Daddy are going to get back together."

Children also may pick up a common adult pattern of telling so-called "little white lies" to avoid hurting other people's feelings -- for example, thanking Aunt Helen for the "beautiful" sweater when they really think it's the ugliest thing they've ever seen. If you think about it, it must be confusing to children to try to understand adult values about honesty!

It's also important that we distinguish between actual lying and just keeping information private. As children move toward adulthood, they need to draw some boundaries and not necessarily tell their parents every detail of their lives -- as hard as that is for parents to accept. Sometimes parents press adolescents so hard that they are inclined to lie as a way of maintaining some age-appropriate privacy.

This is not, however, to make light of children's lying. A persistent pattern of lying certainly can be a risk sign. In older children and adolescents, lying may be a way of covering up troublesome behavior, such as drug use. And in children of any age, chronic lying may be a symptom of deep insecurity and/or family problems. In such cases, it is important to seek professional counseling.

There are a few steps parents can take to ensure that children learn the value of honesty:

" Parents should model honesty in our own behavior. For example, what message are we giving our children if we ask them to tell a caller we're not home when we're sitting right in the next room?

" Specifically teach honesty as a value that you hold in your family. Understand that children are not born knowing that honesty is a good thing. It is a virtue that requires careful teaching.

" Teach the concept of trust, letting children know that when they lie we lose trust in them. The danger is that when they tell the truth we won't believe them -- just like the fable of "The Little Boy Who Cried Wolf."

" Make truthfulness worthwhile. For example, when a child has the courage to admit a wrongdoing, we should sincerely thank him or her for being honest. Of course, we still have to deal with the wrongdoing, but flying off the handle will only make the child reluctant to tell the truth the next time.

" When a child does lie, confront it consistently. Clearly and firmly tell the child that lying is not acceptable and that it makes us lose trust. If the situation is serious enough, impose a reasonable consequence such as loss of a privilege. Over time our children will see that it pays to be honest and that relationships work best on a foundation of trust. 


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