When Jack was just starting to really talk, he would make up names and people and stories all the time. After he'd been at pre-school all day, I would ask, "What did you do today?" And he would say, "I went to the beach."
"Oh, yeah? With who?
"What's you friend's name?"
"Hodiya." Jack's always been great at making up cool-sounding names.
At the time, I thought this was an excellent display of imagination and I encouraged it, going along with his stories and asking questions. But it go to a point where, when we asked Jack real questions, he would be more inclined to make up stories than tell the truth. Every day, I would ask Jack what he did in school, and he would either say nothing, or pause and make up some crazy story about going on roller coasters or going to the circus. If I pressed him on it, telling him that I know he didn't do that, he would often insist that he did. If I presented absolute proof that he didn't—"the circus isn't in town, Jack"—he would relent: "I was just pretending!"
I became concerned, not only because Jack was lying all the time, but also because he was so stubborn about it, insisting he was right. I was always accused of being stubborn as a kid and certain people (hi mom!) would say Jack's behavior is payback for my behavior as a kid. But I honestly think I was only stubborn if I truly believed I was right. Jack seems to do it even if he knows he's wrong. He also - and this, I fear, is very much like me as a child - acts very triumphant when he is proven right. Yesterday, I didn't think we had any apple juice. Jack said we did, so we went to check. He was right. He must have said "I told you, daddy!" 18 times in the following 2 minutes.
Of course, given my own stubbornness, Jack and I have often had stand-offs, with neither one of us willing to give in. One time in particular, I had to fight fire (lying) with fire (lying). We were driving home from school one day and I asked Jack what he did that day. "We played lacrosse," he said. We had a seen a few minutes of a lacrosse game on TV that weekend and I was 99.9% sure Jack was lying.
"Oh, really? Where did you get lacrosse sticks?"
"Ms. Rosie brought them in."
"Are you telling the truth, Jack?"
"Yes. I'm telling the truth."
Now, I was fairly certain that Jack's teacher Rosie did not bring in a dozen lacrosse sticks for a bunch of 3-year-olds to wield. If she had, I'd have heard about it and/or seen it. But, of course, there was always that extremely remote chance that somehow he was telling the truth. I decided that possibility was too remote and did something I've really never done before or since. I lied to my son.
"Well, I'm going to call Ms. Rosie and find out if you're telling the truth. Are you sure you're telling the truth?"
Pretending to make a phone call: "Hi, Ms. Rosie? It's Evan Serpick, Jack's dad. Yes, just a quick question: Did you all play lacrosse at school today? No? I didn't think so. Thanks." I pretended to hang up. "You weren't telling the truth, were you, Jack."
"I was just pretending!"
This has become a significant problem for us. Another day I went to pick up Jack at school and his teacher said, "I hope Brenda feels better soon."
"What? Brenda's not sick."
"Really? Jack said his mommy was very sick."
Uh-oh. We've had many conversations about telling the truth and lying. It's okay to pretend, but you have to make sure everyone knows you're pretending, we tell him. When someone asks you a question, you have to tell them the truth. But still, he makes things up, things he must know we won't believe. And he insists he's telling the truth. When he does, Brenda and I disagree on what to do. She's inclined to let it go after the initial correction: "OK, if you say so." I can't do that. Call it stubborn, but it's not in my nature to do that. I cannot relent until Jack admits that he was lying. It has occurred to me that Jack just likes the attention, that he knows if he insists about something like this, it will get me all worked up and engaged, and he likes that on some level. As a result, I try to let it go. But it's not easy.
Another example: We were driving and Jack says, "I know how to drive." At this point, we've been through this enough that I know what to expect. I decide in advance not to get worked up.
"Yeah, you know how to drive for pretend, like on the steering wheel at the playground."
"No, I really know how to drive. A car."
"I know you like to pretend, honey, but you can't really drive a real car. That would be illegal until you're 16 years old."
"No! I really can!"
At this point, Brenda is looking at me and shaking her head, so I let it go. But should I? I can't decide if this is typical toddler material or if my son is shaping up to be a pathological liar. What can we do to get past it?
We may have had a bit of a breakthrough last night. I came home from work and Jack was happy to see me, all smiles and hugs. I asked him what he did today and he tried to squirm away. As much as I worry about the lying, I wonder why he's so reluctant to tell the truth? Honestly, what's so hard about recalling what you did? A little singing, a little playground, some lunch, boom, question answered, right? It's like he doesn't know how to tell the truth. I decided not to give in this time. I started, as always, by telling him some things I did today, then asked him again. Again, he tried to get away. "I'm thirsty," he said.
"No, you can't go until you tell me three things you did today." He wiggled and twisted, but ultimately relented and came up with three pre-school-ish activities that sounded true enough. Either he's started to tell the truth, or he's getting better at lying. Yikes!