"I don't know how to get my child to stop lying. We have tried very hard to teach high moral standards. The more I punish him, the more he lies. I'm really worried."
(An excerpt from the book Positive Discipline A-Z)
Understanding Yourself, the Situation, and Why Children Lie
We have searched and searched and can't find a single adult who never told a lie as a child. Actually we can't find any adults who never lie now. Isn't it interesting how upset parents get when children have not mastered a virtue they have not mastered themselves? We do not make this point to justify lying, but to show that children who lie are not defective or immoral. We need to deal with the reasons children lie before we can help them give up their need to lie. Usually children lie for the same reasons adults do, they feel trapped, are scared of punishment or rejection, feel threatened, or just think lying will make things easier for everyone. Often lying is a sign of low self-esteem. People think they need to make themselves look better because they don't know they are good enough as they are.
- Stop asking set-up questions that invite lying. A set-up question is one to which you already know the answer. "Did you clean your room?" Instead say, "I notice you didn't clean your room. Would you like to work on a plan for cleaning it?"
- Focus on solutions to problems instead of blame. "What should we do about getting the chores done?" instead of, "Did you do your chores?"
- Be honest yourself. Say, "That doesn't sound like the truth to me. Most of us don't tell the truth when we are feeling trapped, scared, or threatened in some way. Why don't we take some time off from this right now? Later I'll be available if you would like to share with me what is going on for you."
- Respect your children's privacy when they don't want to share with you.
Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Lying Problems
- Help children believe that mistakes are opportunities to learn so they won't believe they are bad and need to cover up their mistakes.
- Set an example in telling the truth. Share with your children times when it was difficult for you to tell the truth, but you decided it was more important to experience the consequences and keep your self-respect. Be sure this is honest sharing instead of a lecture.
- Let children know they are unconditionally loved. Many children lie because they are afraid the truth will disappoint their parents. Show appreciation. "Thank you for telling the truth. I know that was difficult. I admire the way you are willing to face the consequences, and I know you can handle them and learn from them."
- Stop trying to control children. Many children lie so they can find out who they are and do what they want to do. At the same time, they are trying to please their parents by making them think they are doing what they are supposed to do.
Life Skills Children Can Learn
Children can learn that it is safe to tell the truth in their family. Even when they forget that, they are reminded with gentleness and love. They can learn that their parents care about their fears and mistaken beliefs and will help them overcome them.
- Many children lie to protect themselves from judgment and criticism because the believe it when adults say they are bad. Of course they want to avoid this kind of pain.
- Remember that who your child is now is not who your child will be forever. If your child tells a lie, don't overreact to the behavior by calling your child a liar.
- Focus on building closeness and trust in the relationship instead of on the behavior problem. This is usually the quickest way to diminish the behavior that you find objectionable.
My son was suspended from school. This was his story, "I found some cigarettes in my locker. I don't know how they got there. I was just putting them in my pocket to take them to the principal when a teacher came by and took me to the principal."
My thoughts went crazy for a few minutes. "He is lying to us. I'm a failure as a mother. He is going to ruin his life. What will people think?" I was feeling pretty upset, so my feeling compass let me know that I was caught up in my thought system and was not seeing things clearly. I dismissed my compass instead of my thoughts for a minute and used more thoughts to argue with my inner wisdom.
Yes, but this is different. These are really terrible circumstances over which I have no control. How could I possibly see them differently? I am going to have to scold him severely, `ground' him for at least a month, take away all his privileges, and let him know he is ruining his life."
Fortunately, I had too much faith in my inner wisdom to take those thoughts seriously. I dismissed my crazy thinking, and inspiration from my inner wisdom quickly surfaced. I then saw the circumstances in a completely different way and felt understanding and compassion for my son's view of the situation. He had just entered junior high school, where the pressure is enormous to follow the crowd rather than to follow common sense.
When I got home I listened to my inspiration and knew what to do. I sat down with my son, put my arm around him and said, "I'll bet it's tough trying to figure out how to say no to your friends so you won't be called a nerd or a party pooper." He had been expecting my usual craziness and hardly knew how to respond to my sanity.
He tentatively said, "Yeah." I went on. "And I'll bet the only reason you would ever lie to us is because you love us so much you don't want to disappoint us." Tears filled his eyes, and he gave me a big hug. I responded with tears in my own eyes as we experienced those wonderful feelings of mutual love. I reassured him, "If you think you could ever disappoint us enough to diminish our love, then we are not doing a good enough job of letting you know how much we love you, unconditionally."
We can only guess what the result would have been had I followed my crazy thought to interact wit my son. My guess is that my craziness would have inspired increased rebelliousness instead of increased closeness.