"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."
Understanding Your Child, Yourself, and the Situation
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 many 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 setup questions that invite lying. A setup question is one to which you already know the answer. Instead of saying, "Did you clean your room?" say, "I notice you didn't clean your room. What is your plan for cleaning it?"
- A slight variation of saying what you notice is to say what you think. "That sounds like a good story. You have such a good imagination. Tell me more about it."
- 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."
- Focus on solutions to problems instead of blame. "What should we do about getting the chores done?" instead of "Did you do your chores?"
- Deal with the problem. Suppose your child tells you he hasn't eaten when you know he has. Why would he say he hasn't eaten? Is he still hungry? If he is still hungry, what does it matter if he has eaten or not? Work with him on a solution to deal with his hunger. Does he want attention? Deal with his need for attention by working together to find some time you can spend with each other. Does he want to tell a story? Let him tell a story. Identify it for what it is: "That sounds like a good story. Tell me more."
- Another possibility is to ignore the "lie" and help your child explore cause and effect through "what" and "how" questions. If he says he hasn't eaten all day, ask, "What happened? What caused that to happen? How do you feel about it? What have you learned from this? What ideas do you have to solve the problem?" These questions can be effective only if you are truly curious about the child's point of view. Do not use these questions to "catch" him in a lie. If at any time you think it is a fabrication, go back to suggestion 2 above.
- Respect your children's privacy when they don't want to share with you. This eliminates their need to lie to protect their privacy.
Planning Ahead to Prevent Future 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 me 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.
- Most of us would lie to protect ourselves from punishment or disapproval. Parents who punish or lecture increase the chances that their children will lie as a defense mechanism. All of the above suggestions are designed to create a nonthreatening environment in which children can feel safe to tell the truth.
- Many children lie to protect themselves from judgment and criticism because they 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.
In hopes of avoiding the crying fits that usually resulted when Micah's mother questioned his stories, she thought she'd try something new. When the eight-year-old said, "I saw an elephant on my way home from school," his mother said, "Wow, I wonder if it was the same one I saw at the grocery store? What color was the one you saw?"
"Mine was green," Micah said.
"Nope," his mom said, "Mine was blue and pink."
Micah looked suspiciously at his mom and said, "I think I'll go play in my room now. See you later." His mom smiled to herself, and Micah ran to his room.
These articles are an excerpt from the book Positive Discipline A-Z by Jane Nelsen, Lynn Lott and H. Stephen Glenn.