Can a first-grader deliberately mislead you?

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Q: Can a first-grader deliberately mislead you? What is a developmentally appropriate understanding of a 7-year-old’s mind as they approach the age of reason? Some questions (Did you eat your applesauce? Did you put away your toys? Do you need to go potty?) get answered with yes, but that’s not true.

What advice do you have as we navigate life with our growing son, who is getting more sophisticated but who is still a child? Especially with the potty issue, we get called out for “not trusting” him when we tell him to try anyway, even if he doesn’t need to go. How do we navigate truth and make-believe with a 7-year-old?

A: Thank you for your question, because this is an issue for many parents and caretakers. Most of us are accustomed to hearing “white lies” from 4-year-olds, but they start to feel different as children approach 7, don’t they?

To answer your first question: Yes, a 7-year-old can deliberately mislead you, but you should ask yourself how this viewpoint will help you connect with your son. Unless there’s some kind of mental illness (and true delusional thinking) happening, then children lie for a reason. I will repeat that: Children lie for a reason.

You ask a great question when wondering about the “developmentally appropriate understanding” of a 7-year-old lying, because, yes, typical 7-year-olds are no longer in the age of “magical thinking.” They know they didn’t eat their applesauce or put away their toys, and they know whether they needed to go potty. So why would he lie?

The typical 7-year-old doesn’t set out to lie, but I’m guessing he is feeling over-managed and either did the activity and doesn’t want to be harassed, or didn’t do it and still doesn’t want to feel harassed. Think about it: How would you feel if someone followed you around and asked you inane questions all day? Children are built to become independent (while still being connected to their people), and we get their hackles up when we treat them as if they’re still “little.”

It is good news that your son isn’t going along with all of these questions, no matter how annoying it is for you. But why the lie? A 7-year-old is acutely aware of right and wrong, and your son knows his lack of applesauce-eating will cause your disappointed face, your lecture or your anger. This may feel like guilt (or worse, shame), and people don’t like to feel guilty and ashamed. They cause separation from the people we love, and children will lie to unconsciously sidestep the bad feelings. I can say with confidence that your son doesn’t wake up and plan his white lies and denials. This is just his young brain trying to avoid vulnerability.

Now that you know why he lies, what can you do differently? Remember: You cannot get into his brain and change him; you can only change what you do. I would first cease all questions that are not utterly relevant. Unless there are medical issues, leave the applesauce and bathroom requests alone. Even if there are medical issues, find another way to communicate with him.

Stop asking him yes-or-no questions, because they aren’t working. Next, assess why you are asking him these questions. What kind of information are you trying to get? Are you worried about his lack of food? Does he have a history of forgetting to use the toilet? Or are you treating him as if he’s still little, even though he can now make his own decisions about eating and toileting? Do you have control and fear issues? (It is okay if you do; every parent goes through a version of this.) Getting clear on your irrational or rational beliefs will help you see solutions or, even better, where you can stay quiet.

I would problem-solve with him regarding the issue you keep questioning. For instance: “Bert, I have noticed that breakfast isn’t getting eaten every morning. What’s up with that?” After you gather his thoughts and all the relevant information, you can start to solve some problems. But you cannot “fix” anything until you stop questioning him, get clear on your own motives and work with him collaboratively. Good luck.

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