24 Oct

When Kids Lie

The topic of lying came up in my parenting class last week. We were role-playing parents’ typical responses to a lying kid:

  • “Honey, did you just lie about that? Are you sure?” (When parent already knows the child is lying)
  • “Are you kidding me? You just lied straight to my face. How COULD you?”
  • “That’s it, no more (fill in the blank) for you!”

Never Tell A LieEveryone agreed that the typical responses above didn’t help the child learn to be honest, but they also wondered what the heck else to do!

Strangely, the very next night at bedtime, my own teen looked my husband straight in the eye and said he didn’t have his phone in his room (which is not allowed in our house.)

We scanned the downstairs charging area where the phones are supposed to “sleep” at night, and didn’t see the phone there. Or anywhere else. So I went back upstairs and knocked on my son’s door. He opened it and handed me his phone.

“I had a really important conversation that I needed to finish and I knew that Dad would not let me finish it. I’m done now so here you go,” he said.

I replied, “You know, if you had explained that to Dad, maybe he would have let you finish your conversation.”

“No chance,” my son replied.

“Well,” I said, “you didn’t give him a chance. He might have. And even if he didn’t, was the lie worth the loss of trust and relationship?”

“Good night, Mom.” Apparently, it was.

“Good Night, C. We can talk more about this in the morning. I love you.”

It’s an interesting question for parents to ponder: sometimes, to the child, the lie is worth the loss of trust and relationship. And sometimes, the lie is protecting trust and relationship (in their mind, anyway, because “If Mom found out that I actually did steal that candy bar, she would lose her trust in me and our relationship would suffer.”)

So what to do? How do we help our children to become honest, trustworthy, and develop integrity for doing the right thing?

“We may treasure honesty, but the research is clear.  Most classic strategies to promote truthfulness just encourage kids to be better liars.”   Po Bronson, Nurtureshock

Here are a few tips gathered from various experts on the subject.

  1. Just know that all kids lie. Home observation studies found that “four-year-olds will lie once every two hours, while a six-year-old will lie about once every hour . . . 96% of all kids offer up lies.” (Nurtureshock by Po Bronson) I used to feel completely betrayed when I discovered that my child lied to me. Now, I am less personally appalled, which means I can respond with less emotion, and increase the odds of productive learning in the aftermath.
  1. Avoid punishment. When children first begin lying, they do so to avoid punishment. The threat of punishment puts the child’s focus on self-preservation, rather than on the bigger issue of doing the right thing. “In studies, scholars find that kids who live in threat of consistent punishment don’t lie less. Instead, they become better liars, at an earlier age – learning to get caught less often.” (Nurturshock)
  1. Don’t trap your child in their lie. If you know your child has lied, don’t ask them if they have, which is an invitation to dig themselves even deeper into the lie. Instead of “Have you washed your hands?” when you know they haven’t, describe what you see: “I see dry hands,” and invite the next step: “would you like some help washing those germs away?” (Dr. Laura Markham, AhaParenting.com)
  1. When your child has lied to you, be honest yourself. Jane Nelsen and Lynn Lott of Positive Discipline recommend you 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. I wonder how I might be making you feel that it isn’t safe to tell the truth? Why don’t we take some time off right now? Later I’ll be available if you would like to share with me what is going on for you.”
  1. Reward honesty with immunity and appreciation. This advice comes from Dr. Victoria Talwar, one of the world’s leading experts on children’s lying behavior. If you want the truth from your child, teach them the worth of honesty by telling the child, “If you are honest with me, I promise that I will not punish you and in fact, I will appreciate you even more for telling the truth.” Her research shows that offering immunity PLUS praise for honesty reduces lying by between 50-75%.
  1. Deal with the actual problem. Lying about having hit one’s brother is a problem, but the real problem is feeling the need to hit in the first place. So put the focus on the hitting and look for solutions to that problem, rather than on the lying. (Positive Discipline A-Z)
  1. Be aware of what you are modeling. Turns out, adults lie too, at a rate of about one per day, on average. (Nurtureshock) The vast majority of these are little white lies to avoid hurting feelings, protect ourselves from looking bad, or avoid engaging in something we’d rather not. When a telemarketer calls and asks if you are home, do you ever say, “I’m sorry, he/she’s not here right now”? Our kids are listening!

As for my own situation with my teen, the next day I told him, “Dad and I really value trust. And we also recognize that you might feel trapped – you both want our trust and you want to be connected to your friends at school, especially when there’s a lot going on like the Homecoming dance, homework, and the PSAT. We understand that. We try hard to be reasonable people and when you’re feeling pressure to conceal the truth from us, we hope that you will let us know so that we can look for a win-win.”

Will he lie less in the future? I don’t know. I can’t make him be honest. All I can do is my best to create an environment and a relationship that make honesty easier. And model it myself, of course.

I’ve decided to notice how often I lie today. Already caught one (I can’t believe it!  Dang!) More results later. ( ;

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04 Sep

6 Things Great Parents Do . . . at least sometimes

Let me start out by saying that if you do all of these things regularly, I bow down to you. In my view, these are 6 things that great parents do at least sometimes. Because doing them all, all the time, is a pretty tall order.  It is for me, anyway.

So here they are, 6 things great parents do at least sometimes:

1. Make time to have fun with their kids, 1:1.  I was skeptical when a parenting consultant, some 10 years ago, recommended I spend daily “special time” (1:1 time with your child doing something they enjoy) with my child to diminish defiant behavior. I don’t think I followed through. At the time, I couldn’t see the link between having fun with my child and getting them to stop being so darned difficult.

But now I know how potent this investment is. When children feel loved, connected, and really understood by us, they are calmer, more grounded, and quite simply, more open to our influence. In their 2008 Article Assuming the Best, Rick Smith and Mary Lambert cite evidence that teachers who spent two minutes a day for 10 days in a row by having a personal conversation with a difficult student (“2 by 10 Strategy”) improved the student’s behavior by 85%.  That is HUGE!  Imagine what 10 minutes a day might do for your own child.

And of course, the real benefit of spending quality 1:1 time with our kids is that we build relationships that nurture us both for the long term.

2.  Hold limits with firmness and kindness.  I watched some parents do this masterfully at a pool party several years ago.

Their 4YO daughter had been swimming blissfully in the pool when it was nearing time to go.  The Dad walked over to where his daughter was swimming, got her attention, and let her know that in 10 minutes she would need to get out and dry off.  He then explained that 10 minutes was about enough time to do 15 handstands or 15 dives.

Nine minutes later, he got her attention again and said, “One more minute!  Time to finish what you’re doing.”  After another minute, he approached her with an open towel and told her it was time to get out.  She resisted with complaints and negotiation.  But the Dad stayed there, and calmly repeated, “It’s time now.”  He didn’t get immediate compliance, but he waited patiently with open towel and within a few minutes his daughter swam to him, crying and whining about having to get out of the pool.  It was quite a scene, actually.  Her cries were loud and heartfelt!

But the Dad simply wrapped her into the towel and picked her up. “That pool was a lot of fun.  It’s hard to get out, huh?” he empathized as he gathered the rest of his family, cheerfully said good-bye to me and other guests, and left, his daughter crying in his arms all the while.

Nicely done, Dad!  He didn’t grab her harshly and yell at her.  He didn’t storm out while demanding that she stop crying.  On the other hand, he didn’t give in and let her swim for another 10 minutes, either.  He had very respectfully set the limit, let her know it was imminent, and then when she resisted, he held the limit with gentle firmness.

3.  Model what respectful behavior looks like.  One of my Positive Discipline mentors once said, “It’s very hard to be disrespectful to someone who is being respectful to you.”  I have found this to be true in my own experience.   What are our kids learning about respect when we yell at them, demean them, or avoid giving them responsibility?  Respectful behavior looks like:

  • really listening
  • moving to where your child is and getting their eye contact before making a request (vs yelling from another room)
  • following through with what you say you’ll do
  • giving advance notice for changes or transitions
  • giving kids meaningful responsibilities
  • letting kids make and learn from their own mistakes
  • involving kids in problem solving and more

Often people confuse respect with obedience but they are most certainly not the same.  Respect literally means to admire.  When we show our kids respect, we show them that they are worthy of admiration.  If we want to be respected, we must give them something to admire.  When children feel admiration for and from us, it is just natural for them to be more cooperative.

4.  Look for solutions rather than blame, shame and pain.  We now have overflowing evidence that punishment backfires in the long run, and often short run, too.  Blame and shame invite resentment, rebellion, revenge, or retreat (“Wow, you’re right.  I am a bad person.”)  Solutions, on the other hand, invite problem-solving or skill-building for the future. Here are a few examples.

A father once lamented that his toddler could not keep his little hands off the father’s iPhone. Every time the child touched the phone, the father put the child in time-out, yelled at him or threatened to take a way a toy. Nothing helped. Finally the father shifted his focus from punishment to solutions, and simply put the iPhone up high into a cupboard the toddler could not reach. Nice solution!

My own example is when my child kept forgetting to turn in his homework.  Week after week, he would go to the effort of completing it, but then not turn it in!  For a relatively organized parent like me, this recurring problem was infuriating.  I initially thought to take away his computer, eliminate his free time, or give him extra chores for every late or missing assignment.  But this kind of thinking would only address the behavior, not the cause of the behavior.  When I shifted my focus to solutions, and involved my child in helping to solve the problem, we came up with a way to tag and file his finished homework so that he was more likely to see it, and thus turn it in.

5.  Involve their kids in solving behavior problems.  As parents, we often feel we must take complete responsibility for solving our kids’ behavior problems.  We forget how powerful it can be to involve our kids in the process:
– First, kids are much more likely to follow through when they are part of the process.
– Second, when we ask our kids to share how they see the problem, we can get a much clearer picture of the problem’s root cause.
– Third, kids can come up with some great ideas!
– Fourth, as we involve our kids in the problem-solving process, we are teaching them how to solve problems for the long term.

After weeks (years, maybe, if I’m honest) of nagging, complaining, taking away privileges and angrily cleaning up after my kids, I finally asked them to help me solve the problem.

During a family meeting, I asked my kids to share their feelings about the messes.  “Sometimes I just forget to clean up,” one said.  Another offered, “I sometimes have to rush off to piano or school and I don’t have time to clean up.”  I empathized and validated their feelings.  Then I shared mine:  “My concern is that I enjoy a tidy home and get crabby when I have to clean up after everyone else.”  Then I asked them to help me brainstorm solutions for a “win/win.”

I wrote down every idea, theirs and mine, no matter how ridiculous they seemed.  After eliminating a few ideas that were not respectful, we voted on what was left.  The winner:  “Mom or Dad will say, ‘Rub-A-Dub-Dub, Clean up your mess’ as a reminder.”  I thought the idea was stupid and would never work, but went along with it to honor the process.  Then and even now, five years later, when I say that magical phrase, my kids go right to the mess and clean it up (most all of the time, not kidding.)

6.  Give themselves time to cool down before responding to challenging behavior.  When my child defies me outright, talks back, or ignores my requests, I immediately feel triggered.  I think, “How could she do that?!  After all I’ve done for her!  I will not stand for this!”  My heart starts pounding faster, my breath gets shorter, my eyes get squinty and I lean forward ready to pounce.

Inside, my limbic system is getting activated, and I’m moving into “fight or flight” mode.  But as energy moves into the limbic part of my brain, it’s moving OUT of the pre-frontal cortex, the part of my brain that allows me to use self-control, access moral reasoning, and find creative solutions.  In this triggered state, I’m literally dumber (some studies show that when angry, an adult’s IQ drops up to 60 points, or 50% of the average IQ.) How many times have you said something in anger that you quickly regretted?  That’s because you were dumber when you said it.

So while it is very tricky to pause before responding to your child’s infuriating behavior, it is way more effective to do so if you are feeling triggered. Very few situations are truly emergencies that must be dealt with immediately. Give yourself a few minutes to walk away, take some deep breaths, focus on nature, or write down your thoughts rather than speak them right then. When you feel more calm, you are much more likely to come up with a solution that is helpful, rather than hurtful.

So there they are:  6 things that great parents do at least sometimes!  I’d love to hear your feedback in the comment section below.  Please tell me what would make your top 6!

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01 Feb

Struggling to come up with “the right” consequences? Try this!

Click here for an audio version of this blog:

Over the past several months, I have heard some questionable tips from parenting experts on the topic of “consequences.”  What’s surprising to me is that these are parenting experts I respect and agree with most of the time.  But not this time.

Here’s an example of one tip that raised my eyebrows:  “The consequence should be meaningful (something important to the child, such as favorite toys, clothes, or activities).”

In other words, it’s got to hurt in order to work?  Hmmmmmm. . .

I agree that kids need to learn that actions have consequences. The problem with parent-imposed consequences, however, is that more often than not, they are just thinly disguised punishments, intended to make kids pay for their mistakes with blame, shame, and pain rather than learn from their mistakes constructively.

Slide1If we really believe that mistakes are opportunities to learn, then it makes sense to think more critically about what kids are learning from “consequences.”

A few distinctions are in order here. Logical consequences can be defined as consequences that follow logically from the action. For example, if a child spills her milk, the logical consequence would be that she cleans it up (or helps to clean it up if she’s too young to do it on her own.) All very logical so far.

Natural consequences occur without any parental or adult intervention. For example, if your child refuses to wear a raincoat, she might get wet. Natural consequences can be extremely effective in helping kids learn from their mistakes, so long as kids’ genuine safety is not threatened, and parents refrain from throwing in an “I told you so.” Makes sense to me, naturally!

These days, many parents accept that punishment is not an effective teaching tool. They know that making kids pay for their mistakes with blame, shame, isolation or threats backfires in the long run, and often the short run, too. (See Why Punishment Doesn’t Teach Accountability)

Punishment backfires because it predictably results in one of these 4 R’s (from Positive Discipline):

1)  Resentment:  “Mom is so unfair!  I can’t trust her.”

2)  Revenge:  “She’s winning now, but I’ll get even.”

3)  Rebellion:  “I’ll show her that she can’t control me by doing just the opposite.”

4) Retreat:  (in the form of reduced self-esteem) “She’s right . . . I am a bad person.” Or (in the form of sneakiness)  “I just won’t get caught next time.”

Why am I talking about punishment here? It’s because many parenting experts tout consequences without pointing out how easily they can become punishments.

Here’s an example I use in my parenting classes to demonstrate how it goes*:

Serena, a seven-year-old child dawdles in the mornings. Even though she’s been told umpteen times to get moving, she is still late, day after day, and it’s affecting the whole family and making everyone late! There must be consequences, right?!

When I ask parents to help me brainstorm consequences for Serena, they typically offer suggestions like these:

  • take away her favorite toy
  • yell at her
  • no playdates after school for a month
  • make her write an apology note to every member of the family
  • no breakfast

Imagine you are Serena.  What are you thinking and feeling as you hear this list? How motivated are you to change your ways? How effective will these consequences be in helping you to build skills and be successful for the future?

Now let’s shift gears. Forget about consequences. This time let’s brainstorm solutions that might help Serena develop the skills she needs to get ready on time and more independently. What could we do that would help her be successful long term?

Here’s a typical list of brainstormed solutions:

  • help her lay out her clothes the night before
  • involve Serena in creating a morning routine chart
  • ask Serena what she thinks would be helpful for her
  • teach Serena how to use an alarm clock
  • get up 10 minutes earlier

As Serena, what are you thinking and feeling after hearing this list? How motivated are you to cooperate? How effective will these solutions be in helping you build skills and be successful for the future?

Both lists could be interpreted as “consequences” (the result of an action) but they are profoundly different.

The first is really a list of thinly disguised punishments — I call them “conse-punishments” —  meant to make Serena pay for her mistakes. They’re mostly hurtful. The second list feels so different:  empowering, skill building, and . . . helpful in learning from her mistakes for the long term.

So how do parents come up with consequences that are helpful and not hurtful? Jane Nelsen of Positive Discipline suggests you simply forget “consequences” and just “Focus on Solutions!” According to her, good solutions meet all 4 of the following criteria:

1) Reasonable

2) Related to the action/problem 

3) Respectful 

4) Helpful 

Let’s use “no playdates after school for a month” as an example consequence and run it through the criteria here.

Is it reasonable? Chances are, the parent threw this out in a fit of anger, and doesn’t really intend to follow through for a whole month. For me, a month seems extreme so it fails on this criterion.

Is it related to the situation?  What do playdates after school have to do with getting ready in the mornings? I don’t see the connection. Fail.

Is it respectful?  This criterion is not just about what the consequence is, but also how it’s delivered. I envision this consequence given in anger and without advance warning, therefore it fails here, too.

Is it helpful?  Great parenting is about much more than keeping our kids “in line.” It’s about helping them develop life skills and beliefs that will enable long term self-discipline. How would losing playdates help Serena become more successful in getting herself ready in the mornings? It wouldn’t.

So for me, this consequence fails on all 4 criteria and thus is actually a “conse-punishment.”

Click here to see how I used these criteria to evaluate “no breakfast.”

I admit, coming up with SOLUTIONS can be tricky at first. Here are some hints for using solutions effectively:

1) Make sure you’re level-headed before coming up with a solution. Give yourself a few seconds, minutes, hours or days to calm down and access your higher thinking brain before trying to help your child learn from their mistake. There are some situations where you must respond immediately. Most, however, are not emergencies.

2) Involve your child in coming up with a solution.  When we take the time to involve our kids in solving problems, they learn so many things:  that we think they are capable of solving problems, what respect feels like, and how to solve problems. What’s more, they are more likely to follow through with a solution that they’ve helped to find.

3) Plan ahead.  Our own disorganization has consequences too and kids can end up paying for our mistakes!  A little advanced planning can prevent many problems from ever happening.  Get up earlier, make a routine chart, discuss the problem with your child during a calm time, pack lunch the night before, etc. Planning ahead is almost always an effective solution!

4) Ask yourself what your child is thinking, feeling, and learning from the solution.  Are they learning that when they mess up, there’s hell to be paid? Or are they learning that you have faith in them to fix their mistakes, and will love them even when they are messing up big time?

The difference between a logical consequence and “consepunishment” can be hard to distinguish at first.  But if we give ourselves the chance to practice and consider the 3R’s and and H, we’re much more likely to encourage learning (the helpful kind!) for the long term.

Want more?  Here’s what Dr. Laura Markham has to say about consequences.  I happen to agree with her ( :

Good Luck!  If you’d like support in this awesome parenting job, check out a Parenting with Positive Discipline class.  More here.

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*This example, "Solutions vs. Consequences" is from Teaching Parenting the Positive Discipline Way by Jane Nelsen and Lynn Lott