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My goddaughter has for some time now jokingly said her younger sister did things that she clearly didn't. At first it was always situations where I clearly witnessed her do something and was myself jokingly asking who did something and she would say her sister did it. In these cases it was clear to everyone who did what, and that no one was in any real trouble, and it was just play, so I had no problem with it and kept playing along.

She also likes to occasionally pretend that she is her little sister, and vice versa, and thus tell me that her little sister did anything she did or that she did everything her sister did; but again it was always clearly just imaginative play.

Lately though there have been times when something 'bad' was done and she tells me her younger sister did it to avoid getting in trouble. I can tell by the fact that she preemptively rushed to tell me, the fact that she continued to insist on it even after I asked if she was just playing, and from her extremely poor poker face that she was afraid of punishment and was actively trying to avoid it by lying. I've discussed lying with her and punished her when I catch her in such a lie.

Unfortunately, the 'joke' that her little sister did something has become so common that now that she has started using it as an intentional lie she's quickly bluing the lines between joke and lie. There are times when she is so quick to say her sister did something that I don't know if she realizes I can clearly tell who was responsible and is just trying to play, or if she thinks she may be risking trouble and trying to avoid responsibility.

Obviously we need to set a limit on when she's allowed to say her sister did something and draw up some firm rules so that I'm not in doubt as to rather she is trying to play or trying to lie. I also need to explain what these rules are, and why they exist, in a way she can understand.

My question is what a reasonable rule is. Do I have to tell her that she can never say her sister did something, even when it's clearly part of play as either a joke or imaginative story telling, just to avoid any risk of her getting confused as to when it's allowed to say and when it isn't? After allowing her to playfully say that her sister did something for so long I'm afraid suddenly forbidding it in play would seem like a confusing rule change to her; plus I hate to limit her imagination play if I don't have to.

However, if I don't outright forbid playfully saying her sister did something then how do I draw the line between that and anything that may be construed as lying such that she will understand the difference and there will never be a question about what is or isn't allowed, and when I should treat something as play vs a lie?

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The line between reality and imagination is blurry for young children. You're coming to the conclusion that your child is lying to avoid punishment, but I think an equally valid incentive is that the child is simply not comfortable with the reality in which they did the bad thing, so they simply go for another one. Seeing as we can't easily distinguish between the two from the outside, I tend to go with the more generous interpretation.

I would make efforts to lower the threshold for owning up to your mistakes. Make it seem less threatening. Try to refrain from punishment as children easily internalise that. There's a risk they'll signal that the child is bad for having done bad, and my personal belief is that that may even cement an undesirable behaviour. Favour natural consequences. Don't say "you broke the thing so I'm removing a toy or privilege from you", prefer "now that this thing is broken, I have to clean up / replace it, so I no longer have the time / can afford that activity we were going to do". But more importantly, see the child and acknowledge the good in the fact that they don't want to be the person who did the bad thing. Be explicit about you knowing that they are well meaning and good, because that self imagine is probably being challenged in that instance.

You can also lower the threshold to owning up to your mistakes by making sure that you do it visibly when given the opportunity, commending the child or others when they do, or if the opportunity doesn't present itself, you can just talk about once when someone did and how brave thar was and how much you appreciated that.

As little sister grows older, however, it will probably be more important to her not to be unfairly scapegoated. As long as the conspicuous blaming continues, perhaps you could redirect it to a made up blamee instead? "oh you didn't break the thing? It was your plush frog, wasn't it? Yeah, I bet." It could be simple as that to remove the sibling from the line of fire. But be careful not to extend the joke by mock punishing the toy. You need to reinforce the values above, so it'd be better to comfort the toy and say the things you would've said to your daughter of she had owned up. She may then feel it would've been nicer to have been the recipient of that consolation.

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  • That's great. What are your thoughts on reinforcing the lie of the act being a worst act than the act itself? Ie lying bout breaking something is worst than actually breaking it? – abdnChap Jan 6 at 9:12
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    @abdnChap: I think that's an agreeable sentiment, but as I'm prone to believe that neither the act nor lying about the act necessarily stems from malicious intent, I would avoid that discussion in the heat of the moment. You can convey that message in another situation, where it doesn't come across as a reprimand for a current lie, and the child isn't compelled to be defensive about it. – dxh Jan 7 at 13:43
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Here are my thoughts to help you find this line.

Many people tend to find many things a little child does sweet, funny, adorable or whatever else. Later when the x-th thing has broken, needed to be cleaned up or replaced or solved another way, they start to feel less happy about it.
I've seen parents both in the state of everything you do is great (at least we make you feel...) as well as the state of omg you have only known doing X for years but why on earth can't you finally stop it right now.
I wonder how they really expect their child to professionally switch away from deeply settled behavior to completely new rules without any pain for everyone involved.

Then, when I leave the mentioned emotions apart, I don't see one reason why an accepted range of lies would add so much fun or play or be necessary at all, so that it's worth all the trouble. Instead there might be other people or even kids that are alienated by the girl telling lies or you showing how funny that is.

So the best, most understandable and least problem causing level of acceptable lies is - NO.

React properly. Scolding is not a solution because the child has no knowledge about the meaning of lies in society, especially if encouraged to do so by you and everyone else. But you could explain she said something not true and shouldn't do that.
Why would you establish some behavior that causes problems later, just for a short moment of (perhaps misunderstood) and very limited fun?
You already stepped over the level of "everything is great" and want to leave it. Then, why invent another intermediate level that you also will have to leave again?

Or to cite your phrase

I'm afraid suddenly forbidding it in play would seem like a confusing rule change to her

Do you think this role change will become easier it you wait longer?

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  • "...the child has no idea about lies and truth." Can you support this? Studies show that children start knowing the difference between truth and falsehood (as told by themselves) at about 3 years of age. – anongoodnurse Jan 5 at 15:05
  • @anongoodnurse I wanted to mention the child can't have an idea of what lying really means. I rephrased that to make it more clear. – puck Jan 5 at 17:31
  • (Not my downvote.) I'm trying to understand how the edit helped, but I do understand if you're saying she's possibly less aware because of the playing along. – anongoodnurse Jan 5 at 19:01

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