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!”
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.
- 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.
- 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)
- 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)
- 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.”
- 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%.
- 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)
- 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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