(Thud, then baby crying in the living room)
Me: Elisha, what happened?
Me: Are you sure nothing happened?
Elisha: I’m sure! I didn’t do anything! Nothing happened!
My 4-year-old son and I have this exchange, more than once, while my wife gets the crying baby, who obviously has a faint red spot on his forehead and is still crying. The evidence is there: something happened. The only question is what happened.
Me: Well, your brother is crying, and it looks like he has a red spot on his head. It sounded like he fell or something hit him.
Elisha: Uh,uh,uh, he fell on the floor and hit his head!
Me: Oh, I thought you said nothing happened. But now you say he fell and hit his head on the floor?
Elisha: Yeah, yeah, yeah, he fell and hit his head on the floor.
I promised a few posts ago (read here) that I would address the topic of children lying. Lying was allegedly the reason the “Hot Sauce Mom” poured Tabasco sauce down her 7-year-old child’s throat.
Lying is a distressing issue especially for parents who have a strong moral and religious conviction against it. Responding to lying appropriately is very important (literally pouring hot sauce down a child’s throat is never appropriate). Thinking about the 7-year-old mentioned above and my own experience, here are some important points to consider:
Lying for a child is instrumental. I’m not condoning it. But children will tell lies. A child often doesn’t want to get in trouble, hurt someone’s feelings, or disappoint a parent or other adult. Lying in these cases is instrumental; it serves a purpose. It’s not a personal slight or intended to be disrespectful to you as a parent, and shouldn’t be taken as such. When this happens, it is a prime opportunity to teach that telling the truth is a reward in itself, even if the truth hurts. Promote truth as much as you condemn lying.
Sometimes, but rarely, lying may be habitual. The 7-year-old in Alaska that had hot sauce poured down his throat was adopted. I don’t know this particular child’s history, but foster and adoptive children often face abuse or neglect and learn to lie in order to survive (stay out of trouble and of the radar) or get attention that would otherwise be withheld. Lying should not be condoned just because of this, but then again, lying is not the biggest issue with children from that kind of background. Attending to needs and addressing root causes is much more important.
Me: Well, you didn’t tell the truth the first time I asked. Because you didn’t tell the truth, you can’t watch any more videos the rest of the day. If you don’t lie anymore and you act good you can watch something short before bedtime.
Elisha: Uh, well I sling-shotted a ball and hit Jesse in the chest and that’s when he started crying. (guess he thought if he told more of the truth it might get him off the hook).
Me: Oh really? Well I want you to tell the truth all the time so we’re going to just not watch tv until bedtime as long as you tell the truth and you act good the rest of the day.
Discipline based on what you know. My son had already admitted that something had happened based on me bringing up the evidence, and so discipline was in order for not telling the truth. Even when he said he hit the baby with a ball, there was still a bump on the baby’s head. My goal was to teach that lying is wrong and worthy of punishment. The punishment didn’t increase because he told more of the truth or because everything didn’t quite make sense.
There really is no place for anger in effective discipline, which makes disciplining for lying difficult. When a child doesn’t come right out with the truth or it doesn’t all make sense, we want to push to get the truth at all costs. Sometimes more information is needed for safety reasons, but in most cases it is enough to know that the child hasn’t told the truth. In many situations, a third party can verify information. The “Hot Sauce Mom” could have called the school and found out what she needed to know instead of asking the child about a situation she knew from past experience he might lie about.
Developmentally, it is important to realize that children have a very fluid sense of time and often use fantasy thinking. If the same event I’m describing in my home happened the day before or even a few hours earlier, there is no way I could expect an accurate answer from my 4-year-old. To him, everything happened “last night!” While this factor may not excuse a child that you know has intentionally told a lie, it also may help you as a parent make a more appropriate decision about your reaction. Everything is simply not going to always add up. It does not make the child a liar!
The worst thing that can be done is to label a child a liar. As parents, we hold a tremendous amount of responsibility for building trust with our children so they will be honest and learn the value of telling the truth. That will not happen with overly harsh punishment, labeling, berating, or lecturing. Most of these reactions are a result of the parent’s anger, fear, or insecurity and are not about teaching a positive, moral lesson at all.