We send our 5yo boy to kindergarten with a packed lunch most days. Every once in awhile we let him buy lunch. Kids have an account that we can pay into, so there is no need for cash transactions. (Which I don’t agree with but that’s not the focus here.)

Yesterday he came home with food on his face. The tell-tale orange crumbs of Cheetos gave it away. He said his friends gave him the snack.

Today he came home with half his packed lunch still in his lunch bag. He finally admitted to buying lunch today and yesterday. He also added that he gives some of his lunch away to his friends.

Part of it is (I’m guessing) that he doesn’t really get buying lunch since he isn’t using money. The bigger issue is that he is knowingly lying to us about buying it. Yesterday he deliberately hid the fact that he bought lunch and a snack.

How should we respond now and address this is in the future? The money isn’t what we are concerned about, but more about the fact that he knowingly is lying about his actions. 

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    In a way I think this is a good thing. Not only does it show that your child recognised that you might be upset with them, but they chose to tell you of their own accord afterwards. Additionally it appears that they know the value of sharing (assuming of course they actually 'gave' their lunch away and weren't forced into doing so, which is something worth keeping an eye on just in case - even 5 year olds can be bullies).
    – Pharap
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 11:07
  • How we initially found out: we got an email reporting a negative balance. We were sending lunch everyday and didn't know he was buying lunch too. Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 18:05
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    There are a lot of good answers already so I won't add one BUT this is a great indicator that he's experimenting with other people's perception vs his own. npr.org/sections/13.7/2017/10/02/552860553/…
    – Still.Tony
    Commented Feb 3, 2018 at 0:03
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    The existence of "negative balance" is something I would very much address with the school, as this effectively renders you incapable of preventing your child purchasing food at the school. They should be blocking transactions if there is no balance, which means you retain the power to only selectively put money in their account. Giving five year olds what is effectively a credit card for treats (e.g. Cheetos) is predatory and if the school does not adequately respond to your complaint I would honestly consider taking this public.
    – Flater
    Commented Jul 10 at 4:21

6 Answers 6


I wouldn't go too hard on him. He is five after all. Going super hard on him now has the potential to just make him stick to his guns in the future about a lie. This sounds like a first mistake. Treat it as such.

Let him know that lying to you is not OK and that you hope you foster an environment of honesty (worded to where he can understand). Let him know that you are disappointed. Maybe show him the consequences of using the money from that account and tell him that the days you pack his lunch for him he should eat it. If he wants to buy lunch that day because it looks like something delicious, tell him he should save as much of his packed lunch as he can for the next day.

This could be a good intro into meal planning and financial management. Perhaps he or you could acquire a lunch menu from the school and he can decide the days he wants a packed lunch versus buying. And even though he can't see the dollar amount of the account, maybe you could give him a fake form of currency that equals the amount in the account. On the days he buys lunch, when he gets home, he gives you that amount of fake currency so he can see the physical transaction taking place.

He came clean eventually and that's good. Again, don't go too hard on him.

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    We had the EXACT same issue as the OP, with the difference that our boy never came clean until the end of the year when he came home with a bag full of (lunch) money he had squirreled away in his desk. :-/ Our solution to the issue was exactly as u suggest: we have the kids circle the days they want hot lunch (up to 3 per week) and we prepay. They can swap days, but it remains the same # or else they have to pay (they have pocket money). It's a social thing for the kids; the lying was just Bc my boy didnt want to hurt my feelings Bc he chose his friends over my lunch.
    – Jax
    Commented Feb 3, 2018 at 0:26

I agree with @SomeShinyObject's excellent answer. Just some additional thoughts.

Do you ever lie? Probably. Don't be surprised if your child can pick up on deceptions.

Almost all children lie. We would like our children to be 100% honest with us, but studies show that children start to lie at about age three. Sadly, it's a fact of life. They lie to protect a loved one (shown when children are witnesses to a crime), they lie to protect themselves, they lie to get something they want. Your child is normal. Please treat this as a normal part of life; overreacting may have the unintended consequence of teaching the child to learn to be a better liar.

Never set your child up to lie. If you know they're lying, don't ask them if they are telling the truth.

Find out the motivation for lying. If the child has no motive for lying, it decreases the chance they will lie. Once you know the motive, you can (to a point) begin the fine line of negotiating. (You don't like healthy food? Ok, one school day a week you can have x, etc.)

Discuss the value of honesty, then live it for your children to see. If they see you always being honest, they have a great role model. If you have age-appropriate conversations about how lying erodes trust and relationships, they will better understand the detrimental effects of lying. There are plenty of children's stories about the negative consequences of lying. Read them together.

I hate lies and deceptions of all kinds, yet one of my children was heavy on the side of lying to avoid work. I don't remember ever getting angry, but I did have a lot of discussions with them and I did meet out or let appropriate consequences play out, and I did allow for reparations. One of their biggest whoppers is a now "beloved" family story.

Why Your Child Lies

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    At that age, it's important to learn about honesty and deception. If you don't learn how to lie, you're unlikely to learn to recognise other people's lies. So, not only is it natural, but it's a vital part of development! Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 9:03
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    It's "mete out" not "meet out". =) Anyway I think it is important to separate clearly between teaching honesty and negotiating. It does not seem good to encourage the child to compare between the expected outcomes of lying and negotiation, when deciding whether to lie or not...
    – user21820
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 15:30

By the age of 4 or 5, kids know what makes their parents happy and what doesn't. So it's common for them to tweak unpleasant truths or cover things up in a way that avoids them getting in trouble. Your son admitted the truth so that deserves some praise. Tell him you are very glad that he told the truth and that you really like it when he's being honest.

Along with praising his honesty, you should also let him know that you were disappointed when he lied ask him why he did it. Depending on his answer and your parenting style, you can decide if he needs a small punishment or you can forgive the first offense. Explain to him that this habit will make you trust him less in future. You can also include bed time stories on honesty and lies.

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    Overall great answer (+1) although I disagree that this is a productive moment for punishment --- explaining yes, but not punishing (which could result in the counter-productive lesson that he should stubbornly sick with a lie rather than come clean). It sounds like the child's behavior was consistently motivated by prosocial tendencies (to share with friends, to not make mom/dad angry by telling them about it), just misplaced ones. Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 22:29

A month ago there was an article in the New York Times which may be of interest to you.

The main takeaways are that lying is a normal part of a child's development, even a sign of intelligence, and therefore no reason to panic as a parent; and that harsh punishments are unproductive or even counterproductive: The children just learn to lie better. The evidence presented in the article appears rather anecdotal, but at least it's research.

My personal flavor of child education is raising by example and feedback: Be honest and communicate your disappointment and perhaps anger when he lies to you. Also try to focus on pragmatic consequences: When he often lies to you you cannot trust him. When you cannot trust him he cannot do certain things he might be allowed to do if you trusted him. When presented with concrete examples even 5 year olds can understand that.


We went through almost this exact same problem, though in our case he was also stealing lunch.

This approach is aimed at making lying an ineffective way of dealing with issues, if not entirely impossible, and our solution was is in the context of addressing a problem behavior hidden behind a pattern of deceitful behavior. The lying may or may not have been the most significant issue in our case, but I recommend the same approach in either way: Simply take away the opportunity to lie, and focus on solving the problem, or addressing the issue.

The issue we were dealing with was purchasing lunch without paying for it, and with no intention of paying for it. Not asking him was the best decision we made. We just checked the account for activity. Lying was just not an option. The lunch taking continued, off and on, and in various forms for many months, unfortunately, partially due to the school refusing to help. In fact, the school outright participated, if only implicitly, by allowing him to continue purchasing lunch on an account with negative balance, and continued trying to collect from us. In fact, the lunch issue was never fully resolved. But, the lying was, at least in this case, by having the correct information before acting, and not creating a situation where lying was a reasonable option.

Lunch records at our son's school were available online, same-day, making verifying whether or not the behavior was happening simple and undeniable.
If we saw a charge, we might ask "Why did you...", but never "Did you...".

In your case, with lying being the primary concern, this might serve to eliminate any battle or escalation of commitment to the lie. There isn't any question of what, just why, and why saying something other than what happened is wrong, followed by why honesty is important.

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    I disagree strongly. Obsessive monitoring and enforcement reduces the sense of personal responsibility we want our children to grow up with - by the logic of this answer, we should all live in a police state where every action is watched and assessed for infringements. (Hmm, perhaps you work for Google?) Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 9:06
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    @TobySpeight Reading my answer again, I realize I did not fully develop it, and didn't make it about developing trust (which is overall more important), but I am not endorsing obsessive monitoring. We were in a situation where our son was stealing daily and lying about it. We never checked until the school called us asking for the money he racked up on our account, because we trusted him. It warranted daily monitoring. Thank you for pointing out that my answer didn't set the tone I intended, but your assumptions are false.
    – zugzwang
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 9:45
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    Ah, your comment adds much to the answer (perhaps you could edit and incorporate that?). I see now that you were at the point where you give the lesson that trust is something you earn and can lose! Thanks for the clarification. Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 11:04
  • Maybe I'm missing something, but how is purchasing lunch on an account with negative balance stealing?
    – Dennis
    Commented Feb 4, 2018 at 14:19
  • @TobySpeight Google doesn't monitor our every action and assess for infringements. That was an unnecessarily hostile addition and didn't support your argument.
    – spex
    Commented Feb 4, 2018 at 16:31

In addition to the other comments, which are insightful, I'll add another aspect. At 5, kids can still be at a stage where they have trouble cognitively making a distinction between the truth and what they wish is the truth. In fact, I believe this could vary quite a bit depending on how 5 he is. If he's early 5, maybe he's still a ways off from this developmental step. If he's late 5, maybe he's starting to recognize the difference, which he might express noticing in other people before he notices it in himself. Then, once he notices it, he has to start learning how to exercise his willpower in telling you something that is true that he knows you will disapprove of. Of course, this also takes some practice.

All that to say that, first, I don't think you should be too concerned about his not telling the truth. If anything, you can start talking about stories that you make up or you two role-play together about concrete situations in which there's a clear difference between the truth and not the truth as well as a reason to tell the truth that is something he can grasp. At his age, I remember a couple of role-plays my daughter and I did, that she was very interested in, where I left for work, and as I said goodbye, I told her that she and her little brother must not go in the pool for any reason (we don't actually have a pool, but that part was her idea). Then, I came home from work and asked her why she was wet and if she went in the pool. She would answer that she did, and either she would volunteer the reason or I would ask why in a calm but concerned voice. Interestingly, she insisted on running this scene over and over, and we had to do it in different ways. She wanted to try it where she tried to hide the truth, and where I got angry when she told the truth, and some other stuff. It was one of those cool moments where I could actually almost see the learning on her face.

And second, I'd tell the teacher that it's happened and ask him or her to help you keep it from happening. I understand that schools can make baffling decisions and can be hard to work with when you ask for some extra effort in dealing with it. I hope they're understanding and helpful.

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    Could you please support your comment about the distinction between truth and wishes? I would like to see some support for this. Thanks. Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 19:38

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