Liar, Liar…Pants on fire!
Why do children lie? Most often it is a fear of the consequences of telling the truth. Their experience has told them that they will get punished and someone will be upset with them. A child might lie in an effort to prevent this from happening.
Children, like adults seek the highest level of survival possible. They need love and acceptance in their family, their relationship with others, their school, etc. Pain…real or threatened …physical or emotional… must be avoided. Just as a driver facing an imminent crash might swerve to avoid an accident, a child might lie to prevent pain from occurring. But, how can we remove this threat?
By making it safe to tell the truth!
The simplest way to accomplish this is by staying calm when talking to your child. The tone of your voice and the questions you ask can often be the deciding factor on whether to tell the truth or to lie. Try to ask questions that don’t solicit automatic lies. For example, instead of angrily asking, “Did you break this?”, which can be responded to with a simple “No”, you might calmly (almost curiously) try, “What happened to the vase?” Although this calls for restraint and self-discipline on your part the benefits are tremendous and you have effectively removed one of the biggest obstacles…loss of love.
In order to tell the truth, children need to feel that they can communicate without getting into trouble. This feeling of “getting into trouble” usually occurs after a child has done something he feels is wrong or after doing something he felt he should have but didn’t…like his homework. Already, he feels bad because he made a mistake. If you come along and make him feel even worse it can be quite overwhelming to him.
As a parent you may wonder, how you will be able to help your child learn from their mistakes if they are not disciplined?
Discipline does not mean the same thing as punishment. Unfortunately, these terms have been collapsed so often that many believe that discipline is punishment. Punishment is a degree of pain or loss inflicted on someone who has broken a rule, law, etc. Such as a getting a fine for a speeding ticket. Whereas discipline is an activity, exercise, or a regimen that develops or improves a skill. Such as keeping in personal hygiene or checking your work before submitting it. Telling the truth can sometimes be quite challenging and does involve a certain skill in dealing with others…and courage. It is a practiced activity. It takes work…but the end result is greater happiness for your child…and for you.
When your child feels comfortable enough to tell you honestly of some wrong doing, it is important to thank them for telling the truth. Give them an opportunity to tell you how they could handle it differently the next time…prevention. Being able to re-evaluate and correct their mistake gives them the opportunity to be responsible for their actions. Sometimes asking what they would like to do, to correct this, is all that’s needed. They might even originate their own form of penalty…often worse than what you had in mind. If they go overboard and suggest an extreme penalty for the offense being discussed, then you can gently guide them to one that is less severe.
Some children will also want to make up the damage to others – in addition to their chosen penalty. This is fine and should be accepted as long as it is reasonable. This helps them learn the concepts of consequences and compensation for damages, that occur in every day life. In situations where damage caused resulted in a financial loss to another, try to help your child come up with ways that they can earn money for replacement.
Here’s an example to illustrate the idea of “making up the damage”, originating from a seven year old who broke a school rule by bringing his skateboard to school and ended up breaking a $50.00 ceramic planter. He decided that he would bake cookies and sell them at school to earn money to buy another planter. He worked all night making cookies, the next day had his bake sale and was actually beaming with pride as he turned over the money to the school administrator. His actions showed that he was taking responsibility for his errors and had learned something from the experience.
Each child has their opinion of what occurred and these often are in opposition. Sometimes, when multiple children are involved you can get several stories of what took place. You could say that somewhere in this situation, there is a lie. But who is lying and who is telling the truth? Policemen use a technique when they hear multiple accounts of a car accident. They listen to each version and come up with an agreed upon account. In the same way, disagreements can be resolved if each child is allowed to communicate without fear of punishment and the person they are communicating with is calm, relaxed and interested.
Although slightly different than handling an individual child, the general concept is the same. First, establish that each person involved will get to fully communicate their point of view and that while doing so, the other person(s) may not interrupt. Give each child an opportunity to communicate, making sure you fully understand what each is saying. As you are doing this, you may notice discrepancies in the stories. Calmly clarify these discrepancies. It might be that the boy who was just hit in the stomach left out the fact that he had been teasing the other one…knowing that it was upsetting to him and just kept doing it. Once all of the truth is out, confirm with both children that this is all of it and allow them to add anything else. At some point they will have established an agreed upon truth. When this has occurred each person involved is given an opportunity to state how they would like to take responsibility for their own actions. The procedure, on taking responsibility and making up the damage, mentioned above is followed until everyone is happy with the outcome.
If the children involved in the upset still disagree, others who witnessed it may be called upon for more information. Again, keep in mind this is not about blame. We are not interested in blame. This is about finding the truth and giving everyone involved a chance to take responsibility for their actions.
If you suspect that one of the parties is lying for a friend then you may have to speak with them privately and let them know that it will be easier for them if they tell the truth and that some penalty may be inflicted upon them if it is later found out they withheld the truth. Notice this is no longer getting the child to be self-determined about their actions. In the case of a cover up, having been given the opportunity to be self-determined and not taking it freely, they are now faced with a penalty being imposed upon them. Again, the goal is to get them to change their mind about lying. If the threat of penalty works at this point then the child’s self-determinism has returned. Never threaten to do something that you won’t follow through on but do carry out the penalty if they won’t come clean. It is very important to not let your emotions get the better of you during this penalty stage. Your punishment will create a bigger effect on a child if it is issued as an expectation of conduct, inversely so if you were yelling or angry with the child while giving it.
In helping to teach your children to tell the truth rather than lie, it is important for you to set the example for them. Be honest in your dealings with others. When a child observes an adult being dishonest it serves to justify telling lies as an acceptable thing. A child who has been punished for lying can develop a feeling of resentment towards others when he observes them doing so. By setting the example of being honest, creating a safe environment for a child to tell the truth and giving them the opportunity to take responsibility for their actions you are improving that child’s future success and happiness in life.
One last note…no one wants to be called a liar. If you emphasize telling the truth instead of accusing them of lying, you are more likely to get them to be honest. These suggestions do take a bit longer to resolve than simply demanding an instant response to your queries but the rewards in the long run will be greater happiness for both you and your child.
If you have other questions about education and parenting that you would like to address…Just ask Mrs. P in the comments section below and I will respond to them in an upcoming post.