Dear Mama Drama:
My 11-year-old son has a real problem with lying. He lies about anything and everything – how he got injured, who he was playing with, etc. He doesn’t seem to be trying to cover his tracks but just doing it for the sake of doing it.
My son is also a gifted athlete and is used to getting his way because of his intensive training and competition schedule. I feel like I can’t pull him out of his meets, but want punishment for lying to really hit home instead of ending up as empty threats.
Current research gives some new information on lying. On the down side, it shows that children lie earlier and more frequently than was previously thought and everyone does it. On the up side, parents can change their interactions to decrease lying and support honesty.
The charge for parents is to set an environment where lying is unacceptable. Often the inappropriate behavior a child is trying to cover up with the lie receives consequences, but the lie itself is not addressed. This inadvertently teaches children that lying is okay. We also sabotage ourselves by sending the message that other activities, such as special activities or sports, are more important than truthfulness.
Children primarily lie to avoid punishment and, ironically, to please their parents. They learn early that punishment is something to be avoided, so they lie to do so. In The Discipline Book Dr. William Sears recommends setting the stage for honesty by clearly telling children, “I don’t get angry at truth. I get angry at lies.” When children trust their parents will remain calm to solve a problem and apply reasonable consequences, they are more likely to tell the truth.
More than just about anything, children want to please their parents. If they think parents will be disappointed, angry, or sad, they lie to make them happy. In Nurture Shock, Bronson and Merryman report research indicating that children need to know telling the truth will make their parents really happy, happier than not having made a bad choice. Following through with this teaches children that honesty is of high value in their family.
The questions we ask our children can also set them up to lie. If you come upon your child doing something wrong and ask them in an angry voice if they did it, the child (trying to avoid punishment and please you) will most likely deny they have done anything wrong.
Parents often undermine their own attempts to promote honesty with their own little white lies. Examining our own behavior is an important step in creating an environment where honesty thrives.
Frequent conversations about honesty and what that really means are crucial to fostering a culture of truthfulness. Emphasize that everyone make mistakes and discuss the importance of taking responsibility for one’s actions. Telling the truth even (especially!) when it’s hard is a critical concept to teach as well. Find examples in the media and news of truthfulness and lying, examine the consequences, and discuss the short and long-term impact as a family.
It sounds like your son may have deduced that lying isn’t that big of a deal and that there isn’t any reason to stop lying. The pattern of interactions between you and your son related to the lying needs to change in order for his behavior to change. You can offer positive incentives (things he wants to earn) for truthfulness and negative consequences (things he loses -which may need to include his meets), when he lies. Remain calm when addressing the lying and following through with consequences. Be enthusiastic and appreciative when he tells the truth. In the beginning you will need to verify his truthfulness before giving incentives so you do not inadvertently reinforce the lying. He will need to earn your trust by being truthful every day.
Dr. Sears also recommends offer times of amnesty when bigger on long festering issues need to be addressed. Offer a time of no consequences when your son, and his siblings, can tell the truth about any transgressions without fear of consequences. This gets everything out on the table and allows opportunity for discussion of why the lying happened and how parents and kids can handle situations differently to be able to be truthful and feel supported.
Children who have found lying works for them can become habitual liars who lie even when there does not appear to be a reason. Additionally, habitual lying can be an indicator of underlying emotional concerns. Support from a mental health professional is recommended in these situations.
Motherhood is an amazing journey that can have its share of Mama Drama. The Mama Drama column runs on Fridays with everyday mothering questions from readers and answers providing strategies to tackle these daily challenges. Send your questions and challenges to [email protected], and your Mama Drama could be in next week’s column! Lisa is also available for private consultations. All emails and identifying information will remain confidential.