Whether it’s dishonesty, distortion, a fable, or a fib; whether they concoct, distort, fabricate, or mislead, kids lie for many reasons. We can do them a disservice by focusing on the fact that they fabricate. Punishing a kid for lying is overlooking the underlying message of a lie. Why not, instead, listen to that hidden message and respond to it?

The other day, I was at the library with my two kids. My younger one was playing at the train table, and my oldest (still only 3.5 years old) wanted to sit on my lap the whole time. We were reading books when my pregnant friend’s toddler ran off toward the door. Wanting to help, and knowing that my kids would be fine, I jumped up and ran after him. I ran into another friend working the check-out counter and chatted for a bit.

After a couple of minutes, my 3.5 year old came up to me and said, “Mama, I couldn’t find you. I don’t know where my baby brother is”. I asked, “Isn’t he at the train table?” She answered, “No, I can’t find him.”

We went back to the train table to find her baby brother still focused on the trains and tracks.

I turned to my friend and told he about my daughter’s fib. In mainstream terms, she was manipulating me with her lie. What did she want? For me to come back and read with her. Should I punish her for this? I didn’t. Didn’t even mention I knew what she was up to. I simply went back to reading her the book we had started minutes before.

I knew I’d be able to talk to her at night, before bedtime, when we go through the day and touch on events that were difficult, either for me or for her. In that relaxed forum, I counsel her about telling me what’s really bothering her- I talk about being honest with her feelings. I have to hand it to her, she’s no dummy. She wanted to read a book at the library, I ignored her, she asked again, I ignored her again, so she got my attention by saying that her brother was missing. I wasn’t being honest, either. I kept saying I’d read her a book, and instead I started talking to my friend. I should have set things up better. Perhaps I should have told her that I’d read 2-3 books with her first and then I would chat with the other moms. Giving her something to expect might have helped her accept my split attention. Without saying anything she was given the go-ahead to determine what she wanted to do with me, and I didn’t honor that.

Next time your kid lies, look for that underlying message and see how you can respect that request.