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Why Do Children Lie, Cheat, and Steal?

Know a few little delinquents? Don’t get out the handcuffs (yet)—it’s normal. With some shrewd police work, you can get to the bottom of why they’re committing those petty crimes.

Boy crossing fingers behind backJacqueline Veissid/Getty Images

So what can a parent do? For one thing (and you knew this was coming), model good behavior. Which, for many of us, may be a challenge: In one University of Massachusetts study, 60 percent of adult participants admitted to telling two or three inaccuracies or blatant lies in a single 10-minute conversation.

Kids absorb everything, says Talwar, including the fact that Dad is lying to the neighbors about who blew leaves into their yard. Of course, sometimes lying is part of civilized life. You get another itchy scarf from Aunt Sophie and say, “Thanks, I love it!” In those cases, you may need to finesse things a bit with your kids (see White Lies, Gray Areas).

Talwar advises talking to kids from the very beginning about why truth-telling is important. When your preschooler lies about who put the remote control in the toilet, rather than punishing her, teach her about consequences and trust. Put the ball in her court by asking, “How would you like it if I said we were going to get ice cream but we were really just heading to the grocery store again?”

If you think punishment is appropriate, make it related to the wrongdoing, says Joshua Sparrow, a child psychiatrist in Boston and a coauthor of Discipline: The Brazelton Way ($10, A kid who lies about watching TV during homework time should lose an evening of TV, not dessert. That way he’s more likely to reflect on the consequences of what he did and (hopefully) not repeat it.

Above all, reward honesty. Talwar’s studies show that kids lie significantly less after they listen to stories in which a character doesn’t get in trouble for fessing up, like the one about Washington and the cherry tree. (The story of the punished boy who cried wolf, on the other hand, has no measurable effect.)

Read More About:Kids & Parenting

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