Last week, my five year old was playing with friends on the playground. One of the children stomped past me, saying “He’s being mean to me.”
I went to my child and said “X says you’re being mean to him.” My child said “I wasn’t mean. It wasn’t me. It was my duplicate #6.” (He’s been reading Calvin and Hobbes, and loves the part where Calvin build a duplicator and makes duplicates of himself.)
So, was he lying? Should he be punished for lying?
When talking about discipline, it’s essential to understand child development. A five year old is in the midst of the magical thinking stage. If you teach them one day about planting pea seeds and growing peas, then the next day, you may find them hovering over the garden plot, waving a stick ‘magic wand’ over the seeds to make them grow now. Or, you may find them planting their favorite toy in hopes that many more will grow.
Sometimes their magical thinking is terribly cute. A friend of mine was making a toy jet pack for a 4 year old, from recycled 2 liter bottles. As they worked, my friend talked about how cool jet packs are and how fun it would be to fly around the neighborhood. When she finished the jet pack and put it on, the 4 year old stood there with her eyes clenched tight in excitement, saying “I’m ready! How do I make it go?” She truly believed that her jet pack would help her lift off and fly.
Sometimes magical thinking is very frustrating. Your child believes that if they do the special magical thing, then they have the power to shape their reality. Sometimes they believe they have the power to change the rules. My middle child knew that our rule is a maximum of “two sweet credits a day” (a sweet credit is a candy or a cookie or a soda, or whatever.) But she kept coming up with one reason after another why that rule shouldn’t apply to her today. It wasn’t that she was trying to talk me into changing my rule (she knew that wouldn’t happen), it was more that she was saying things like “when it’s a sunny day in February, all mamas give their kids four sweet credits” or “Remember, we read that book where she ate lots and lots of cake at a summer picnic and never got sick. So it’s OK to eat lots of cake in the summer.” In other words, the whim of the weather has declared that today is different from a regular day, so what can you do but adapt your routine?
Just as children use magical thinking for things they wish would happen, they also use it for things they wish wouldn’t happen, or didn’t happen.
When my son told me that duplicate #6 was the one who’d been mean, you might jump to the conclusion that he was lying to avoid punishment. But it’s more complex than that. He was actually feeling bad about being mean to his friend. He was sad that his friend had walked away and didn’t want to play with him any more. My son (like all of us) wants to think of himself as a good person, not someone who does mean things. So, he used his magical thinking to say that someone other than him was really the mean one. He was a nice kid who wanted to play with his friend still.
So, I get from a developmental perspective why he’s doing this. But how do I respond? Honor his thinking, but also reinforce that taking responsibility for your actions is important.
“You and duplicate 6 both want to be good people, don’t you? But for both you and duplicate 6, sometimes you forget and you act mean, is that right? Being mean is not OK for either of you.” I pause to be sure he’s heard the message, then say “I see your friend is feeling very sad right now. Can you go over and apologize for being mean, and see if he wants to play again?”
He did go and apologize and they went back to playing happily.
If he’d come back to me with “I don’t need to apologize because I didn’t do anything. Duplicate #6 did”, then I would have said “Duplicate #6 is still figuring out how to be nice. I know you know how to be nice. Can you show #6 how by showing him how you do a really nice apology to your friend?”
This was a one time incident. I might respond differently if I felt like this was a chronic problem that he was frequently behaving badly and blaming it on his duplicate. If that was the case, I would be stricter about calling him on his lie, while still acknowledging the reason for the magical thinking: “You’re not telling the truth. I know you wish that it was duplicate #6 that did it, or you wish it was anyone other than you who did it. But that isn’t true, is it? You did it and you need to apologize for it.”