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.

Remember the famous story about a young George Washington who could not tell a lie? What a whopper. The more realistic tale is the one about Pinocchio-the would-be boy who lied until the web of deception was as plain as the ginormous nose on his wooden face.

It's the truth: Almost all kids lie. They might also cheat and steal. But that doesn't mean they're headed for juvenile hall. To learn the boundaries of acceptable behavior, a child occasionally has to steamroll through them; doing wrong is an essential part of how a kid learns-with parental guidance-to do right. Here's what's normal (along with what might be more troubling) and how you can be soft on the little criminal but hard on the crime.

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Lying

Lying may be the most common underage offense. A kid will start telling you things that aren't true long before he even realizes it's naughty (for instance, that chocolate-smeared baby who shakes his head when asked whether he ate the cookie). When he starts to understand that he's bending the truth-as early as age three or four-it's actually a sign of cognitive development. That's because to purposefully tell a lie, you first need a grasp on reality. Next you need the wherewithal to create an alternative reality, and finally you need the brainpower and the gumption to try to convince someone that a fiction is the truth.

"When preschoolers first lie, they're testing out a new ability," says Victoria Talwar, a professor of developmental psychology at McGill University, in Montreal, who has done extensive research on kids and lying. "They're realizing they can have thoughts, knowledge, and beliefs all their own."

One study at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, that observed kids at home found that some four-year-olds lied once every two hours; some six-year-olds lied at a clip of every 90 minutes. Lying typically peaks between the ages of 6 and 10; it decreases as kids grow older and start to understand the consequences of lying and the likelihood of getting busted.

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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 below to 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?"

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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, amazon.com). 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.)

White Lies, Gray Areas

Even preschoolers can appreciate the importance of the polite (or "prosocial") lie, says Angela Crossman, an associate professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York City. In one recent study, children ages 3 to 11 were given a bar of soap and asked whether they liked the gift. Almost 75 percent of kids in the three-to-five age group said yes, even though they later confessed they had been less than honest. (Older kids were even more scrupulous liars: 84 percent claimed to like the gift.) When you have to tell a little prosocial untruth in front of your child, the best strategy is to acknowledge it later and tell her why you did it, says Crossman: "Explain you've been a little dishonest to avoid hurting someone's feelings. Kids can understand why someone wouldn't want their feelings hurt."

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Cheating

To a person who just learned to walk and talk a few years ago, a game of Sorry! may be a high-stakes deal, says Sparrow: "For kids, winning at the things they know how to do is really important."

Cheating begins in earnest at age five or six. Like lying, it's a sign of cognitive progress: A kid first has to be aware of the rules and then comprehend that it's wrong to break them.

When your small competitor rolls a six and sneakily moves eight spots, don't let it slide, advises Sparrow: "Say you understand how badly he wants to win, but explain that it would be boring if he always won." And make sure you play the game often, so the child gets good enough to win fair and square.

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Hopefully by age eight, his moral compass will help him realize that cheating taints the thrill of victory. (Unfortunately, this may not apply to cheating in school, which is complicated by a number of other factors, including parents' and teachers' expectations and peer pressure.)

Another big reason to crack down on rule violators: Cheating begets lying. In one of Talwar's studies, a guessing game in which kids ages three to seven were told not to peek, a quarter of first graders stole a glance to win a prize. Of those who cheated, 83 percent lied about it.

Stealing

To an infant, life is simple. He sees something shiny, weird, or potentially delicious and he grabs it. As a child moves into the world of playdates and strolls through the supermarket, the concept that some things don't belong to him sets in, but that primal desire to grab them doesn't fade.

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Some kids between ages four and seven may swipe a quarter from Grandma's counter or candy from the checkout line. As with lying, you want to make sure the child understands why what he did was wrong and then play to his natural self-centeredness by asking how he would feel if the situation were reversed: "Would you like it if someone took your toys?"

But focus on the behavior, not the child. "Don't call him a thief," says Michele Borba, an educational psychologist in Palm Springs, California, and the author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions (โ€‰$20, amazon.com). "Say, 'You took something that doesn't belong to you, and we have to take it back.'โ€‰" Even a few hours is a long time to a kid, so return the goods (unless they've already been gobbled) as soon as you can and have your child apologize.

With older kids, don't underestimate the power of old-fashioned guilt. "Screaming and yelling are just not as effective as a heartfelt 'I'm so disappointed,'โ€‰" says Barbara Staib, the director of communications for the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP), which works with teen offenders. She says that when NASP asks teens why they won't steal again, most cite things like "the loss of my parents' trust" or "the way my grandmother looked at me."

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When to Be Concerned

At what point should lying, cheating, and stealing really bother a parent? There are no definitive answers here: It's a combination of the frequency of the behavior and the seriousness of the offense.

That said, here are some factors to keep in mind, according to Sarah Trosper, Ph.D., a child psychologist with the New York University Child Studies Center, in New York City.

Pattern. "If it's happening constantly, in numerous situations, that's worrisome," says Trosper. Is your child lying to you and the babysitter and Grandpa and her teachers? Also, take note if the bad behavior occurs along with emotional outbursts or other problematic behaviors, like intense tantrums or back talk.

Reaction. Does your child seem ashamed when you explain why the behavior is wrong? "It's troubling if your child reacts in a callous or unemotional way," says Trosper, "or if he keeps breaking the rules after you've talked about ways to solve the problem. For example, he's been stealing other kids' toys and you've discussed sharing instead."

Other life stressors. Lying, cheating, and stealing can arise in times of tension (during a divorce, for instance), when kids are prone to acting out. Trosper says, "If it goes on for an extended period or starts to cause stress for the whole family, it would be wise to get help from a therapist."

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