Building The Foundation for An Ethical Life - Part III

In the past two articles we've been talking about promoting honesty. We've discussed setting yourself and your child up for success and we've discussed what most parents consider the most ingenuous of lie-telling: fanciful storytelling. In this issue, we'll discuss lies of a more serious nature.

When a child tells her parents an "untruth" -- that is she says something that's untrue when she knows it's untrue, it is the parents' job to determine why the child is lying. Is the child afraid of punishment because she's been punished severely before? Or is the child not sure what may happen if she tells the truth, so she is avoiding taking responsibility for what she's done?

A father came to me and told me that his daughter was supposed to go on a school trip with her class. She was very excited to have been invited. As the date approached, however, she appeared more and more reluctant to go. One week prior to the trip, the parents who had questions were invited to a meeting. When the date of the meeting arrived, his daughter begged him not to go, stating that she didn't want to go on the trip anyway. Her father went, however, amidst many tears on the part of his daughter. When he arrived, he discovered that his daughter had misbehaved in class and had been told she couldn't go on the trip after all. Dad was extremely embarrassed to have to find out in this way -- in front of all the other parents no less! He returned home, furious with his daughter for not telling him. "Get over here right now," he yelled when he came in the door, "Why in the $%@!* didn't you tell me you'd gotten kicked out of that trip? What's the matter with you anyway? You're really gonna be punished for this one!" "I didn't do anything!" his daughter replied tearfully, "And I didn't want to go on that stupid trip anyway. I told the teacher to take me off the list, I didn't do anything wrong!"

Here is a compound lie. First of all, the daughter withheld information from her father. Afraid of what he might do or say, and not knowing what might happen, she simply tried to avoid the situation by not telling him. When he returned home and was so angry, she lied to avoid what she clearly saw as a severe punishment to follow.

Before I discuss how Dad could handle this situation so that his daughter would understand the consequences of lying to him, as well as feel comfortable coming to him in the future when she'd misbehaved in school, let me say a word about punishment and consistency.

* Punishment. Punishment is defined as any retaliatory action on the part of the parent, either physical or emotional, which is intended to teach the child to behave obediently by making them feel bad, or hurting them. Many times punishment isn't terribly logical, and parents often use one punishment for many different types of misbehavior. For example, a parent might use spanking as their primary disciplinary tool, and might spank their child for a variety of misbehaviors, from pulling the cat's tail to stealing. When a child is punished in this way, he soon learns to avoid the punishment by withholding information and feelings from their parents. (In a later issue, we'll further discuss harsh punishment and it's alternatives, but for now, it's important to note simply that it usually increases rather than decreases a child's tendency to lie.)

* Consistency. In the scenario above, the daughter withheld information from her father because she didn't know what to expect in terms of his reaction. Most often, this is caused because as parents, we're not terribly consistent about how we handle our children's misbehavior. If we're feeling stress-free and enjoying our child, and the child misbehaves, we chalk it up to "Well, she's a kid, after all, and kids sometimes get into trouble." If we're under stress and feeling annoyed at our child to begin with, however, our reaction is more likely to be "You get over here, right now, young lady, I've had it with you!" This type of inconsistency causes feelings of uncertainty within the child. They're not sure what to expect from us, it's kind of like walking through a mine field. They're not sure when they'll step on a land mine and be blown to smithereens. When this is the case, the child has a tendency to "walk on eggshells" around his parents, never admitting to too much or too little, always watching to see what his parents might do this time, rather than being honest and open all the time. Again, we'll talk more about disciplinary consistency in a later issue, but for now, keep in mind that it's important that we make our reactions to our children's misbehavior neither too strong nor too weak. We must be consistent about our reactions, tone of voice and the consequences for misbehavior. When our children know what to expect, they feel more comfortable about taking responsibility for their actions.

With this in mind, let's talk specifically about how to handle lie telling.

Here is a six step model which will allow you to handle your child's lying, as well as your own feelings.

* Confront your child. Say "I want to talk to you about the school trip, is now a good time, or should we make an appointment?" Giving your child a choice about the timing helps bring down your child's defenses. When we say "Get in here right now!" the child is immediately on the defensive, and is likely to lie further.

* Avoid name-calling. "You're a liar," decreases a child's self-esteem, while "You lied to me" keeps her self-esteem intact. When a child feels personally attacked it decreases her self-esteem. Children with low self-esteem feel they can't do anything right, including being honest!

* Say how you feel. "I feel very disappointed that you misbehaved in class and you're not being allowed to go on the trip. What concerns me even more, however, is why you didn't come to me in the first place." Be careful to phrase it in terms of "I feel..." rather than "You make me feel..." Again, if you want your child to be more honest, it's important that she not feel attacked. While you may be very angry and upset, remember that your goal is long-term (creating a more honest child, and a more approachable parent) rather than simply short-term (punishing her for this particular instance).

* Allow the child input. Say "I'd like to hear what you have to say about all this."

* Talk about earning trust. Say "Trust is something very precious and it's something you earn. The more honest you are, the more I trust you, and the more things I'll let you do, because you earned that right. When you're dishonest, however, some of my trust in you goes away, and it takes a long time to rebuild it. Now you'll have to prove to me that you can be trusted again before I can give you more responsibility or privileges." This is especially important to emphasize if your child continues to deny the lie or misbehavior. The more you lie, the more trust you lose.

* Give a consequence. This is probably the most difficult part of how to handle your child's lies, because it's important that the consequence you give be related to the lie. In the case above, a related consequence might be that you will check with the child's teachers on a daily basis for two weeks with regard to after school activities, classroom behavior, etc. If the child can prove within that time-frame that she has come home with correct information about her daily behavior and activities, then your trust will be restored. Remember to take the time to think through what the consequence for your child will be. Arbitrary, inconsistent, or overly severe consequences compound lie-telling.


* Catch her telling the truth. Remember, that when you catch your child in the act of telling the truth, you can build on that. When your child admits to a misbehavior at school, for example, say "I really appreciated that you told me what happened at school today. That might have been a little difficult for you to say, and you might not have known how I'd react. I appreciate your honesty, and I feel as though I can trust you."

Finally, it's important that your child know that while you may not like what he does sometimes, you'll always love him. When he feels accepted by you as a person, in spite of the mistakes he might make, he'll feel more comfortable about telling you when he does make a mistake.

In the next issue we'll discuss the final type of lie -- breaking agreements -- and how to handle this.