background img

Mama Drama: Discipline for Deceit

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.

~Deceived Mama

(photo credit)

Dear Deceived:

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.

Mama Drama: Picky Eaters and Tall Tales

Dear Mama Drama:

My two-year-old won’t eat anything except macaroni and cheese. I’m afraid to give him other things because if he doesn’t eat it he’ll be hungry. I see other children, even younger than him, eating a wide variety of foods. I am amazed that they will eat things like tofu and vegetables.

How can I get my son to eat a wider variety of foods?

~Scared of starving

Dear Scared:

Many children have difficulty expanding their food choices once they have found a favorite food. Macaroni and cheese, PB & J, and mashed potatoes are common favorites. They may like the texture, smell, or associate a positive experience with that food. However, we have to offer them other foods on a regular basis if we want them to make other choices. Our job as parents is to provide healthy options for our children to eat, not to force them to eat it.

Children may need to try a new food several times before they develop a preference for it. Having a family rule that everyone tastes each type of food offered at a meal is a good way to start. Varying the ways that you prepare food can also make a difference. You don’t have to be a short-order cook, but cooking foods in a way that your child is more likely to eat them ensures a better chance of success. If your child doesn’t like slimy foods, don’t offer cooked spinach. Instead, offer him spinach salad with yummy cranberries or mandarin oranges and a sweet vinaigrette dressing. As parents it is important to model trying foods we previously disliked as well.

Sometimes children are more willing to try new foods if they can dip them in something familiar. Barbeque sauce, salad dressings, and honey are just a few choices that may make a new food more appealing for your child.

Some children (and adults) don’t like their food mixed or touching. To those of us whom this does not bother, it doesn’t always make sense. But rather than forcing the issue, simply use plates that have sections in them to separate the foods. It’s an easy fix that eliminates an unnecessary battle.

If your child misses a meal or two, he will be hungry but will not starve. If you have provided healthy, kid friendly food to eat and he has refused to eat, then you have done your job. Be sure you refrain from rescuing your child on these occasions by giving him the mac and cheese after he’s refused to eat other foods you’ve provided.

There are times when extenuating circumstances may be impacting your child’s willingness or ability to eat other foods. Some children have sensory processing issues that make eating different food textures almost unbearable. Others have very sensitive senses of smell that may cause them to avoid foods. Subtle reactions to unknown food sensitivities or allergies may also be an underlying reason. If you have concerns in any of these areas, please consult your pediatrician.

Dear Mama Drama:

I have a question about the blurry line between encouraging active imaginations and lying.  Lying is absolutely not tolerated and we have taken great measures to make sure that we never lie to our four-year-old daughter so that she knows that she can always trust what we say. However, over the last few months she has begun telling “stories” that are untrue, either in an effort to get out of trouble or just to gauge our reaction.

For example, she threw a tantrum in the car after school and reverted to her old standby of communication when she is angry with me- grunting.  We worked through the tantrum and later that night I tried to talk to her about how important it is for us to use our words when we’re angry so that we can work on the problem together.  Her response was, “I was just playing a game….I was playing grunt, grunt, who likes to grunt? And you lost, I won because I’m good at grunting.”

Creative, yes, and of course her delivery was impeccable and I wanted to laugh. However, I did not feel that her response was an accurate reflection of what happened and tried to explain how that she was not telling the truth and when she doesn’t tell the truth it is lying.

To me, always telling the truth is not a negotiable point, but am I overreacting? Where do we draw the line between imagination and untruth?

~Worried about overreacting

Dear Worried:

Lying is one of those issues that is a hot button for many parents. Being clear about telling the truth helps to foster that trusting and honest relationship you are trying to create with your daughter. Your commitment to always being honest with her is a great foundation.

That said, developmentally preschoolers are trying to figure out the difference between fact and fiction. Playing with storytelling is one way of testing out how it all works. When a child has gotten a positive response from the stories, she may tell more to get that response again – such as when you note your daughter is trying to gauge your reaction.

If it is a harmless silly story, feel free to play along with her and then end the conversation by saying something like, “Wouldn’t it be fun if that were really true. You have a great imagination!” This validates her imaginative skills, but also lets her know that you know this is fiction.

Common reasons children lie are because they want to avoid getting into trouble, they wish they had not done what they have, they engage in magical thinking that if I say it did not happen then it didn’t, and to save face in an uncomfortable situation. In the case of the grunting game, your daughter may have been trying to save face and deflect attention from the difficult feelings the situation produced. Admitting that she threw a tantrum may have felt uncomfortable to her and she may have been worried that she would get in trouble.

Using humor to deflect the situation is a great tactic, but it certainly presents a challenge for you as a parent. You can use the same type of statement as noted above to let her know you know this is a story and to avoid the loss of face that she may be fearing. Often it is enough to let your child know you are aware this is fiction in a gentle and light-hearted way without forcing her to admit it.

It can be easy to fall into power struggles and to overreact in response to lying. Taking a moment to view the situation from your child’s perspective can often help you respond with empathy and in a way that reinforces your beliefs about honesty. Using humor yourself can help to keep the situation lighter and allow your daughter the space to tell the truth.

Learning the value of honesty and trustworthiness is an important life lesson. Know that you and your daughter will have many opportunities to practice and clarify this as she grows.

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! All emails and identifying information will remain confidential.