When Children Lie and Steal
Our society takes lying and stealing seriously; they are moral as well as legal issues. Adults without child development knowledge usually believe their role is to punish children for lying and stealing, not realizing those behaviors are linked to maturation (Landy, 2002). As a child, seeing things from your own viewpoint may mean that something is true because you want it to be true and that something is yours because you want it. These beliefs cause children to tell “lies” that they genuinely consider truths and guiltlessly take things that don’t belong to them. An adult who understands how children think can help a youngster learn from these situations.
When Sophie tells her teacher that she is going with Olivia to Disneyland next week, Dennis understands and is able to respond with empathy: “You really wish you could go to Disneyland.” This response helps Sophie separate her wishes from reality without making her feel bad about herself. The following example presented an actual problem of disappearing preschool material:
Madeline was in her favorite dress-up outfit from the playhouse. She announced to Sheri that the outfit she was wearing was her own and that she was going to wear it home and even to bed. Sheri said, “Dressing up is one of your favorite things to do at school, isn’t it?” Madeline agreed and then repeated that the outfit was hers.
Sheri tried again, “I recognize those clothes as preschool dress-up clothes. It sounds like you wish they were your very own. You want to be able to take them home with you.” Madeline held her ground, and Sheri tried explaining, “If everyone took their favorite clothes home, we wouldn’t have any dress-up clothes to play with at school.” Finally, Madeline seemed to be listening.
Yet Madeline still insisted that the clothes were hers, but she was very attentive as Sheri continued to discuss the problem. “I remember a few times when you went home with the dress-up clothes you were wearing. When I found out, I felt bad. I was worried that there would not be enough dress-up clothes at preschool anymore.”
After listening carefully, Madeline put her arms around Sheri’s neck and whispered in her ear, “Sheri, I know they are preschooler clothes.” Then she smiled and danced away.
Madeline’s struggle with fact and fantasy is not unusual. Piaget (1965) found that young children really do not understand the nature of a lie. Even 6-year-olds in his study could not differentiate between an honest mistake and a purposeful mistruth. Additionally, they tended to judge how bad it was to tell a mistruth in relation to how likely it was to be found out and therefore punished. Thus, with this line of reasoning, a believable lie is acceptable, yet a lie that stretches the truth too far is bad. Piaget’s research about children’s thinking should help teachers and parents understand why explaining their adult logic to youngsters doesn’t work. Instead, children need to experience the problems that come from deceiving others. As they get older, they can be helped to realize the impact of untruths on relationships. They can also be helped to understand that taking something from others makes them sad. For these lessons to be effective, children must have caring relationships with others (DeVries, 1999).
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