Sunday, October 11, 2009

What To Do About a Lying Child

We were in the car on our famous South Dakota vacation. The kids, for the most part, were very well-behaved; but there were occasional spats and brawls. At one point, A. Peevie started crying and screaming as though he were suddenly missing an important body part, and I turned around in the front seat, ready to smack the perp who maimed him.

"M. Peevie clawed me!" he wailed. "She dug her nails into me and clawed me! I'm bleeding! Aaagggghhhh!"

M. Peevie quickly and loudly denied the accusation. Her huge honey-brown eyes became huger and her eyebrows scootched up to her hairline, emphasizing her innocence.

"I didn't touch him!" she screamed. "He [kickedmepulledmyhairstolemyCodycoyotelookedatmewithameanlook]," she counterclaimed (I can't remember the actual accusation), "and I fake-punched him, but I never touched him!"

"I saw her," said E-dude. "She scratched him."

"Show me your leg, A.," I instructed. He did, and sure enough, there was a visible mark on it.

"M. Peevie," I said sternly, "There is a mark on A. Peevie's leg. Do you have something you want to say to me?"

"No, Mom," she said earnestly. "I didn't touch him! I promise, I didn't!" Meanwhile, A. Peevie was still crying, and the mark on his leg accused her more loudly than his screeches.

Apparently, my daughter is a liar.

The boys have been accusing her of this for a long time, but I didn't want to believe it. I hate lying, and I value honesty above almost any other virtue, except perhaps kindness--but they often kind of go hand in hand.

The evidence at this point was overwhelming, and it broke my heart.

Another incontrovertible incident happened this summer as well. I had told M. Peevie to do her math sheet, and she told me she didn't know where it was.

"It's on the Barney Chair," I told her. (The Barney Chair is, obviously, a big, overstuffed, purple chair in our living room.)

"It's not there, Mom!" she called from the living room. I sighed loudly, got up from my Scramble match, and went out to the frunchroom.

"M. Peevie, it was right here on this chair," I said firmly. "Did you move it?"

"No, Mom, I didn't," she said with earnest sincerity. "I never saw it." I knew at that moment that she was lying, because I had seen the paper in that spot 15 minutes ago with my own eyes, which, though aging, are still fairly reliable. We don't have a poltergeist. No one else had entered the room; the window was closed and the wind did not blow it away. No one else could have moved it.

We went back and forth for about five minutes, with me asking her in different ways if she had seen it, moved it, covered it, or eaten it, and her earnestly and adamantly denying any such miscreance. Finally I told her that I would not be able to trust her anymore, and that that would have serious consequences to our relationship and to the activities she would be allowed to do.

"The best thing for you to do here, M. Peevie," I said gently but firmly, "is to tell me the truth. I won't be angry at you for telling the truth." She hung her head.

"I did it, mom," she said in a small voice. She removed a pillow, a throw, another pillow--and lo and behold--there was the missing paper.

What's a parent to do about a lying child? Panic? Punish? Pray?

I did some research, but the Internet did not offer much in the way of child development expertise on lying school-age children, at least from known and trusted sources. Much of what I found deals mostly with younger children. Here's what I did find:

An article on suggests that "the most serious type of lying occurs when children lie to avoid punishment." Great. That is exactly what we've got going on here.

Frances Stott of the Erikson Institute discusses how lying evolves in young children, and reassures parents that when your child lies, it is not a "crisis of morality." Our job as parents is to help our children "develop morality and responsibility for [their] actions over the long haul." She offers five strategies for promoting truthfulness, including modeling it, communicating calmly, and pointing out the logical consequences of lying.

It has always been my goal to have all of my children in therapy by the age of five; and although I have missed the boat with M. Peevie (two out of three ain't bad!), it seems possible that we might be headed there, particularly in light of past concerns, and now the whole lying thing.

M. Peevie and I had a conversation about the lying in which I told her that one consequence was that I would not be able to trust her in other situations if she kept lying to me.

"I won't punish you for lying, M.," I said, "But there are natural consequences." ("Consequence" was one of her first words as a young child.) "When you tell a lie, it puts a brick between us," I continued. "If you keep telling lies, you will build a wall between us, and then we can't talk to each other or help each other. You don't want that to happen, do you?"

"No, mommy," she said seriously, with a tear in the corner of her eye. "I will never lie to you again." She will, though.

We all get tempted to tell lies, I told her, because at the time it seems like it will make things better for us. You will get tempted to lie again, honey, I told her. If you slip and tell a lie, the sooner you confess, the better it will be.

What have you done about a lying child?


cube said...

The truth is most kids lie to get out of trouble. The only remedy that I know of is to make the punishment for lying harder than the lie. It isn't easy, but you have to be consistent. If they've got half a brain eventually they get it.

Anonymous said...

You won't punish M for lying? Am I misunderstanding you? Or just in that instance of the paper, to get her to finally 'fess up?


p.s. How did Mr. Peevie do on the marathon? Reach his goal...perhaps do a personal best time?

E. Peevie said...

Yes, Bucky. No punishment for lying--but for sure, a consequence.

I believe more in the power of logical consequences to change behavior than in punishment in general, but especially for lying.

Mr. Peevie--yes, a personal best. 11 minutes faster than he did four years ago. He is not getting older, but better.

Anonymous said...

My stepson dropped a big lie for the 3rd time about the same subject - stealing. You think it's hard to sort out what to do about a simple lie, try figuring out what to do about the double whammy of lying and stealing. I'll preface this by saying that he is indeed a truly great kid with a bit of a troubled past with his real mom (which largely involves life changing lies from his real mom) that he's working through - hence the behavior issues from time to time. We increase the punishment each time - no dessert, no school hot lunch (which seems like a blessing, but not to him), and no DS for longer periods of time each time. We have long conversations about trust and I made him write a list on two sides of a piece of paper - one side listing the consequences of telling the truth and the other side listing the consequences of lying. He dated it and we kept it, hopefully to never bring it out again, but just in case... You have to be consistent in the enforcement. At a certain point, natural consequences aren't enough and punishment helps hammer the point home. I'm pretty sure he's getting it this time (at least I'm hoping really hard that he's getting it this time).

E. Peevie said...

Anon, Thanks for sharing your story and tips. You're right, the lying-stealing double whammy would be really hard to deal with, especially with the added factor of a parent modeling the exact behavior you want to change.

I like how you associate the word "consequences" with good things--the consequences of telling the truth--and not just bad things.

There is nothing more powerful at behavior modification than consequences. Punishment is sometimes a consequence, but it makes sense to me that the more logical and connected a consequence is to the behavior, the more likely it is to teach different behaviors.

Writing the consequences of truth-telling v. lying is a great consequence!

Anonymous said...

Goodness...I'm not a parent (yet)... And reading things like thus throws me head-on into the reality of what it's like to teach a child...

Kevin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
E. Peevie said...

I removed that comment because "Kevin" didn't actually make the comment--I did. Weird. Blogger thought I was someone else.

Anyway, Boosh, yes, parenting is a weird, impossible job. Worth it, most days.