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“My 11 year old has recently started to lie to me frequently. To make it more frustrating she is mostly lying about what I consider little, insignificant things. I feel that I am usually good at finding consequences that are fitting to the action, but am at a loss on what to do this time. I do not understand why she is constantly breaking rules and taking what could be opportunities to build trust and instead abusing trust. Any suggestions on what to do?”

First of all, how frustrating!  As parents, we strive to teach our children to become upstanding, compassionate citizens, and of all the values we try to instill, honesty is paramount.  When our children exhibit behaviors contrary to our values, it’s hard not to take it personally and feel like we’ve done something wrong ourselves.  Knowing the behavior itself is normal is small, if any, consolation.

Much has been written about why children lie.  The reasons are as plentiful as Imelda Marcos’ fabled shoe collection.  For younger children, it can be as simple as expressing wishes or giving voice to an active imagination.  For older children, lying can be a result of pressure to fulfill expectations of parents, teachers, or peers.  There are many other reasons, as well.  If your child does not have any special needs and is lying about mundane issues that you wouldn’t expect to have any significant ramifications if the truth were told, this behavior can seem especially baffling.

It’s all too common to hear of middle-schoolers who fib and claim their homework is done and their dirty laundry has been picked up when a the opposite is easily determined to be true.  Their logic is plain as day here – they’ve been given a task that is less than enjoyable and are not only seeking to avoid that which they consider unpleasant; they are also seeking to avoid unpleasant consequences and hoping to keep Mom or Dad off their back with a bit of dishonesty.  But when our children tell us they had toast for breakfast, when in fact, they had cereal, or that they washed their own plate after dinner (unasked), when they didn’t, and these things are of no consequence to us, it becomes a challenge to figure out what their motivations are.

Did they use the last of the milk when they ate cereal instead of toast?  Did they want to feel more grown up and make Mom & Dad proud with their toasting skills?  Did they mean to wash the plate before they got distracted by a silly sibling, and think they had when they’d really forgotten? (As an easily distracted mom, I can attest this happens to me daily).  Are there consequences that may seem like no big deal to you, but seem significant to your child?  The only way to find out is to talk to your kiddo, and listen.

The pre-teen years are full of apprehension and uncertainty.  It is during this time that children seek to establish their own identity separate from that of their parents – at the same time, it is the security of the family they crave most, because hormones and adolescent turmoil are wreaking havoc upon their lives.  Much of pre-teen dishonesty can be connected back to this.  Our children desperately want our approval, but they’re not going to tell us this in so many words, because they equally desperately want their own identity and self-approval.  Pre-teens with younger siblings can also feel resentful of the role-model status they are given by virtue of birth order.  The pressure to do well and “be good” because the younger sibling(s) is/are looking up to them can be enough of a drive to misbehave, just to take some of the pressure off.  And sometimes, the truth is, our children don’t know why they did a particular thing, and when we pressure them for an explanation, they’ll tell us what they think we want to hear just to get us off their backs.

Some parents find that creating a relaxed atmosphere can help to melt away the tensions.  They might take a Saturday together at a spa, or have a picnic in the park.  A parent might indulge his daughter’s desire to feel a little more grown up with a coffee (or cocoa) date.  When spirits are high, many parents find it easier to tackle the touchy subjects.  

In this situation, a parent might say to a child, between sips of her beverage of choice, “You know, I’ve noticed a lot of half-truths and fibs being told lately.  I know we’ve taught you that honesty is important to us, and I know you value honesty, too.  There is so much I appreciate about you – the way you helped your brother tie his shoes this morning, for example – that this dishonesty sticks out like a sore thumb, and I can’t help but wonder what it’s about. What do you think is going on?”  And, the door open, this parent might just listen.  When her daughter shrugs and says, “I don’t know,” Mom might just smile and nod, and sip her cocoa in silence for a few moments.

If the silence grew everlong, this mom might chuckle and gently prod with a memory of her own.  “I remember a time when I was about twelve or thirteen.  I once gave myself a haircut – a trim, really, not noticeable, and I didn’t do a bad job of it.  My dad asked me about it, and now, looking back, I think he must have been impressed – but I was mortified.  I couldn’t imagine that he would possibly have reacted well – in my mind, I thought for sure I would get in trouble.”

It’s funny how exposing our soft underbellies via childhood memories of our own can elicit sympathetic and mature responses from our kids.  They can also provoke uproarious (and rather unsympathetic) laughter – in any case, chances are, an approach like this can help uncover the root of the problem at hand, if only we are prepared to listen without judgment.

Once we can get closer to the root (and this likely won’t happen overnight, no matter how awesome the spa treatment or cocoa is), we can develop consequences and strategies.  Many parents find that the most successful consequences are those that their children have an active role in deciding.  Children want to learn and they want to please.  They want to feel like they’re growing up.  When we treat them as capable of learning and pleasing and growing, we are affirming these traits.  Our consequences must do the same – whether we’ve found the root or not.

When we know the root, we can address it.  In the case of the mother who gave herself a haircut, she was exhibiting a desire for independence, as well as the desire to be seen as mature or responsible (the act of cutting her own hair), while actively avoiding her perceived disapproval from her father (the lying).  Had her father, instead of asking whether she’d trimmed her hair, said, “Your hair looks different today, I like it.  I don’t know what it is, but something about it makes you look a little more grown up,” she very likely would have had a different memory altogether, and almost certainly wouldn’t have felt a need to lie to him.  She may even have come clean and announced, “Thanks, Dad!  I just gave myself a little trim.”

In the case of the toast vs cereal predicament, when her son tells her he had toast for breakfast, and she sees a bowl in the sink with a ring of milk in the bottom, and the milk jug empty in the trash can, Mom can say, “You must have been really hungry – toast AND cereal!  Next time, when you use the last of the milk, please write it on the shopping list on the fridge so I know right away.”

Her son might reply bashfully, “Sorry, Mom.  I didn’t actually have toast.  I thought I’d get in trouble for using the last of the milk.”  To which, Mom could reply, “You’ll get in more trouble for dishonesty than you will for emptying the milk carton.  When you lie to me, you give me reasons not to trust you.” Mom might then invoke a consequence that relates – a consequence that focuses on rebuilding trust or understanding why trust is important.

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What are some natural and logical consequences of dishonesty, appropriate for an older child?

Natural Consequences: 

  • When a child is dishonest about completing a task, allow the naturally following events to run their course.  Ie: If the litterbox in their bathroom was not scooped, let them see what it smells like in two or three days.  If the dishes were not done, serve the food directly on the table, without silverware (at least, for the offending child).
  • When a child is dishonest an action or words, prevention is the best course.  Avoid giving the opportunity for dishonesty in the first place, by describing observation, as illustrated in the examples above.
  • Sometimes, in spite of your best efforts to set them up to tell the truth, they’ll still lie.  In the case of the breakfast scenario, the boy’s lie had the potential to complicate Mom’s routine – if she hadn’t noticed that the milk was gone and he was dishonest, she may not have been able to make dinner that evening.  After having this pointed out to him, she could put him in charge of figuring out what to make for dinner, and being active in dinner preparations.  This is actually a combination of natural and logical consequences.

Logical Consequences:

  • As mentioned previously, having your child carry out a task that relates to the original offense, like planning and making dinner after using all the milk, can help to connect the dots.  When the homework hasn’t been done because she would rather play on the computer, the logical consequence would be no computer time until homework as been verified to be complete.
  • Dishonesty is stressful.  We want to trust our children.  Our lives are so much easier when we can trust our children.  When our children break our trust, we have the right to say, “This is upsetting.  I’m stressed out.  I have way too much on my plate to deal with dishonesty.  You need to make this up to me somehow.  I’m not doing any special favors until you do.  Remember that actions speak louder than words.”  One mom who tried this recently was pleasantly startled when her 9 year old son volunteered to clean up after dinner and wash the dishes every night for two weeks as a result of his dishonesty.

When we talk about the consequences of dishonesty, it is important to consider the relevance of the consequence to the undesirable behavior.  It’s also important to consider whether our consequences might deter otherwise desirable behavior.  In the case of the mom who cut her own hair – her father might have been thrilled to see her take responsibility for herself.  If he had punished her for lying to him without recognizing her independence and budding maturity, he would have, in essence, been acting to discourage those traits.  Fewer and fewer teachers, these days, have their wayward students write them sentences (a la Bart in the opening credits of The Simpsons).  Why is this?  Because writing sentences (in this manner) is unenjoyable, and the last thing they want to do is give students a reason to hate learning, particularly students who might be struggling.

This isn’t to say that tasks like writing sentences don’t have their place – they do. But we have to connect the dots in a way that our kids can see the big picture.  If we want our kids to “write sentences,” we can have them do a research project, like one mom instructed her son to do – he was to look up the definition of lying and write about what he’d read.  She could have taken it a step further and asked him to write about a significant historical event in which dishonesty had disastrous results, and explore the possibilities that might have ensued had honesty been used instead.  This would have engaged his critical thinking skills and given a real-life application for him to refer to.  Another option could be to concoct a short story or art piece – useful for our more abstract thinkers.

Dishonesty takes imagination to execute, and likewise, as parents dealing with dishonesty, we are required to utilize our imagination to combat it and encourage the behavior we do want to see.  Modeling honesty in all situations, respecting our children’s sensitivity to pressure, keeping the lines of communication open, providing more opportunities for honesty than dishonesty, and keeping the consequences connected – these are all valuable tools for a parent who wishes to raise a truthful child.

For more insights regarding older children and dishonesty, visit these links:

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