How to Curb Your Kid's Sneaky Behavior

At some point, every child tests the waters with sneaky, manipulative behavior. How you respond can mean the difference between perpetuating it and nipping it in the bud.

Cheryl Butler
6-minute read
Episode #571
The Quick And Dirty

If you’ve got a sneak on your hands, you can turn this deceitful behavior around by implementing these four straight-forward strategies.

  • Model what you preach
  • Engage your sneak with a problem-solving conversation
  • Establish and enforce super-specific consequences
  • Praise honest behavior

At some point, our kids begin to test the waters with "little white lies" and other sneaky, manipulative maneuvers. Sneaky behavior can be disheartening and troublesome to any parent, but it can also perpetuate and grow into more serious problems if it’s not nipped in the bud.

Kids who engage in sneaky behavior usually have a reason. Your teen may try to test boundaries—like fudging the actual time they returned home for curfew—to see how much control they actually have over their own lives. Or your preschooler may casually slide a few cookies in his pocket before dinner because he knows you’ll say he can only have a treat for dessert if he eats all of his green beans—ick!

Even though your child knows he's doing something dishonest, in his mind he may reason that he’s problem solving.

Even though your child knows he's doing something dishonest, in his mind he may reason that he’s problem-solving. If he gets away with it, however, it’s like an invitation to try again, but next time he might take something a lot more valuable than a cookie.

Before sneaky actions get out of control, here are four ways you can address the issue and stop it in its tracks.

Model what you preach

Our kids are great observers, and whether we realize it or not, they’re constantly watching our every move. They imitate our behaviors and actions because, after all, we're their most important role models.

One of the most effective ways to combat dishonest behavior is not to engage in it ourselves.

One of the most effective ways to combat dishonest behavior is not to engage in it ourselves. You’ve been dreading returning the PTA president’s phone call because you don’t want to be roped into this year’s fundraiser. Instead of being honest and telling her you just don't have the time, you fabricate an excuse by weaving an elaborate tale. But your middle-schooler heard and knows you haven't told the truth. You may have even invited her to join you in celebrating your ability to wiggle out of a task you didn't want to do.

When we practice "little white lies" in front of our children, we’re giving them the thumbs up to follow suit. Be mindful of the honesty factor in your home environment so your kids will take you seriously when you preach that honesty is the best policy—even when it’s not convenient or you’re trying not to hurt someone’s feelings.

Engage your sneak with a problem-solving conversation

When you know that your child has been sneaky or lied to you, your first instinct might be to question or accuse them. But this tactic can set you and your child up for failure.

For instance, let's say you realize $20 is missing from your wallet. It was there when you left the room to get groceries out of the car. The only two people home at that time were you and your son. When you returned to the room, he quickly put your pocketbook back on the counter. You might lose your cool and screech, “Twenty dollars is missing from my wallet, and I know it was you that took it!” But this just puts your child on the defensive. Coming clean now will only result in more yelling and, likely, punishment.

Instead of being reactive, enlist your child’s help in problem-solving.

Instead of being reactive, enlist your child’s help in problem-solving. “Kiddo, I just checked my wallet and I’m missing $20. Can you help me solve this?” Now you’re not accusing, you’re letting your child know that there’s a problem that needs to be solved, and you need his help to do so.

Your child now has the opportunity to come clean and let you know that he did take the money. He may even tell you why he took it—his friend has a video game that he’d like to buy, but he was afraid you’d say no. You can now thank your child for helping you solve the missing money mystery and ask how you can make sure it doesn’t happen again. This allows you to review your family’s policy about honesty, discuss ways he could earn money to buy the video game, and turn the situation into a teachable moment.

Establish and enforce consequences

Let's return to the case of the missing $20. In an ideal world, your child will come clean, and you'll be able to work through the issue together. But it's more likely your child will deny that he's done anything wrong. That means you'll have to take further action.

While still asking for his help in solving the problem, if he claims he doesn’t know, you can calmly let him know that you're aware that the $20 was in your pocketbook before you left him alone with it, and you’d appreciate it if he'd tell you what happened. Let him know that there will be a consequence.

In my episode How to Effectively Impose Consequences for Bad Behavior, QDT’s former Savvy Psychologist, Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, joined me to discuss how to implement meaningful consequences. I loved her tip to set a consequence and an incentive your child cares about. Ellen suggested that parents not only write down their rules and expectations as specifically as possible; she also encouraged us to be super-specific with the consequences we impose. When your child questions you about rules or consequences, you'll have a tangible reminder of them. No flying by the seat of your pants!

Her advice on creating an incentive-driven consequence is particularly helpful.

"With small potatoes bad behavior, it’s best to minimize punishment and try a positive approach. However, with truly unsafe behavior, like lying about where he is, becomes chronic, punishment does have a role.

"Here’s how to do it well: First, choose a consequence he cares about. If you take away his phone, but he can just chat with his friends from his laptop, it’s not going to work. So choose something that he will actually be motivated about, whether it’s use of the car, having money, or being able to stay out as late as his friends. Spell out the consequence for breaking the rule just as specifically as the rule itself. Write it down and display it, just like the rule.

"Next, add an incentive for adhering to the rule. Some parents think this means rewarding kids for doing something they’re supposed to be doing anyway.  But a one-sided punishment-only approach isn’t going to get him excited. Add some carrots as well as sticks, and you’ll get a more motivated response. This is where you can get your child’s input. Discuss it together and come to a mutually acceptable reward. For instance, for every weekend night he makes curfew, he gets to stay out half an hour later the next weekend night. Again, write it down and display it."

Praise honest behavior

As parents, we're often quick to scold but not always as quick to praise.

Victoria Talwar, associate professor in the Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology at McGill University in Montreal and a leading researcher on kids and lying strongly recommends praising your child when you catch her being truthful.

If we want to teach them to value honesty, we need to look for opportunities to acknowledge when they tell the truth, especially in situations where it might have been easier for them to lie.

Victoria Talwar

So the next time your daughter admits she borrowed the car to go to the mall instead of her friend's house to study, or your son owns up to not walking the dog because he got caught up in his video game, take a moment to let them know you appreciate their honesty and you're proud of them for coming clean. The more you reinforce their honest moments with positive praise, the more likely they'll be to stop and think before stretching the truth.

If you suspect your child may have compulsive lying problems, seek guidance from your child's doctor or a mental health professional.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Cheryl Butler Project Parenthood

Cheryl L. Butler was the host of the Mighty Mommy podcast for nine years from 2012 to 2021. She is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. You can reach her by email.