Updated: Jan 16, 2019
When is a lie not a lie?
Have you heard of Julia Donaldson’s book, ‘Tiddler’ – the fish with the big imagination, "who blew small bubbles but told tall tales”? Well my son Charlie is a storyteller, just like Tiddler.
Learning through Play
Charlie has started saying he wants to be a writer when he grows up and looking at him at the moment, it looks plausible. Maybe a comic book author rather than a novel writer, but creating stories is definitely what he is all about. He will lie on the floor for hours, creating complex narratives about whatever small object he has that day (zoo animal, TV character he got from a magazine he persuaded his grandparents to buy, Fimo model of a frog he made). Or, he will sit at our kitchen table drawing complicated pictures and telling stories of characters he has created (current favourite being Livet the Hyena).
Play Shapes the Future Adult
Charlie has always played like this. I guess we have encouraged him too, so he and his dad have always loved playing with cars, trains or animals, giving each one an individual name, a back story and a whole series of interrelated adventures. It’s how I remember playing as a child. I had a box of Corgi cars I was very proud of, but I didn’t know their makes and models instead I knew their names and which ones were sisters and brothers, who liked to play together, who quarreled etc. I guess I haven’t changed much!
Downside to Imagination
Now we have hit a bit of a snag. Charlie is so good at creating stories, that it is often very difficult to know when he is telling the truth. I am not always sure he knows, and if he does, he is incredibly plausible in his telling of it. When it is something clearly outlandish, it is fine. But when it has the ring of truth about it, it can create problems. Last year, in Foundation Stage, he would tell us the most spectacular accounts of school trips he had been on. Now Lucy has started school, I think she is a bit disappointed that so far, the only school trip on the horizon is a visit to the local theatre to see a Christmas puppet show. He had told her about the time they all went to the Great Barrier Reef and were allowed to go in speed boats, on jet skis and go diving and even saw an oar fish, which is usually found in deep water but on this occasion had swum up to the shallows! Or the time that they visited the TV studios and got to see them making a film about polar bears and he got to ride in a helicopter. Over the summer, he told us that as a present for being so great and to say good bye from the Foundation Stage teachers, every member of the class was being bought a pet. They were building huge aquariums under the school in a special cellar, and everyone was getting a pet sea creature, mostly turtles and dolphins. But he, he wasn’t sure why, he had been singled out and was going to get a family of seven narwhals! Anyone spotting a theme here? Wildlife, and life in the sea in particular, very much his favourite thing. See I told you - we got a real-life Tiddler.
That level of creativity is pretty enchanting, and we don’t want to stifle it, but it becomes tricky when he starts making things up when it matters to tell the truth. And recently, we have had a couple of instances where it has become more difficult. The first was one of my many parent fails. I have a complicated set of drop offs and pick ups on a Thursday and for the first time I forgot to collect Charlie from his after school club. Everyone tells me most parents have done it at some point, and it wasn’t a disaster, someone rang me and I was only 25 minutes late, but still pretty embarrassing. In the meantime, Charlie had had a lovely time chatting to the school administrator. When I arrived to collect him, the administrator said “Oh we’ve had a nice chat. It’s very exciting to here about your new dalmations! What a busy house you must have at the moment”. He must have noticed my puzzled look, as he hesitated, and his smile faltered. “Uh huh, which dalmations are those then?” I asked, and I looked at Charlie who did not bat an eyelid! With my general sense of embarrassment heightened, we dashed out. I had a chat with the administrator later and he said “He was so plausible! He told me what you were feeding them, where you went to collect them and everything!”. Clearly wishful thinking on Charlie’s part, and utter confusion on the administrator’s part. OK, so no major harm done here, but we don’t want him to be viewed as unreliable (unlike his mother who already clearly has earned that label!).
Incident number two was at a friend’s house. We were all round for a bit of a play after school. I was doing something with Lucy and the friends mum came back in with Charlie and said to him “Just show your mum that. I’m not sure it is a good thing to play with.” He held up a small piece of sharp metal. I didn’t recognize it and asked what it was. “I found it stuck in the sleeve of my jumper. It comes from my Stikbot set”. Now, he did get a Stikbot set for his recent birthday, I did not recognize said piece of metal, but it sounded plausible. I checked a couple more times with him and he stuck to his story. I put it in my wallet for safe keeping and we took it home.
Next day the friend’s mum said “Do you still have that metal thing? We think it is my husbands, it is part of his phone and the phone packaging was out at the house on the side and we can’t find it.”Again, no major harm, gave the metal thing back, but we have now entered the realm of theft and suddenly my concern has ramped up. All attempts to suggest that any particular account might not be true have been flatly denied or shouted down.
So we changed tack. At a neutral time, I started a general conversation about what made something true or untrue. How to tell the difference between lies, jokes and stories. We ended up writing a simple guide. Here’s a picture of it.
A Spotter's Guide to a Lie
I used it to refer back to next time there was clear fantasy being peddled. “I’ve seen a programme on the TV at school which said that you can get real miniature reindeer that can tunnel underground”. I made eye contact and asked Charlie: “Is that true, or a story you are making up because it is fun to talk about?” There was a brief pause, a twinkle in the eye and then “It’s a story I want to talk about”. By jove I think he’s got it! The key thing here was not to then dismiss it. I had to give masses of praise for making the distinction and telling the truth, and give lots of attention to the story. “Great! Tell me more about your story!” My instinct was to feel “I have lots of better things to do with my time. I really want to go and make dinner and not sit here while you spin some massive yarn about
reindeer”. But, if I had ignored him or given up quickly, I would have been showing him that he needed to pretend it was true to try to get me to listen. And he really does want to tell me his stories. We have had several times since where we have been able to refer back to our handy guide and check – true? Lie? Joke? Or story? And 9 times out of 10 it’s a story. And it probably always will be.
This handy guide is from A Confident Start – clinical psychology and parenting advice to try at home - because your child’s story should be a good one.
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