“Did you hit your sister?” How we teach lying and how to fix it.


Remember the first time your kid lied to you?  GASP!  It happens one day, then you realize your kid just stepped into the next dimension.  How does it happen?  I’ll tell you. 

There are only so many times you will ask your child if they did something bad, then punish him, before he starts to figure it out: “if I tell her I pushed him, I will get a spanking,” “if I said I ate a cookie without permission, I’m not going to see those tasty Chips-a-hoy for a while.”   Kids learn to lie to escape the consequences of the actions.  So, I ask you,

are we punishing the act or the admission of the act?  HMMM. 

Here is the other part:  we often ask them if they did something when we don’t actually know what happened.  Sweet situation for the kid to be in… “did you do what I think you did?” What we are really doing is setting up wonderful opportunities for our children to lie to us and experience the benefits of lying.  Yikes.

How do we fix it?

How about focusing on telling the truth in the situations when telling a lie would be beneficial (to the kid)?  You can’t really get to the meat of it unless you are focusing on times when a) it matters, which means there is actually a benefit for lying and b) when you know the answer.

So, first be careful when you get into a situation when you think something happened, but you did not see it or are not sure what happened.   Second, realize there has to be an effective motivation for telling the truth.  It is best if the motivation for telling the truth is the same as it is for lying (escape of the consequence), instead of, say, an M&M for each time she tells the truth (there are some “textbook” explanations for this, so trust me).   Therefore, the effect of telling the truth is a reduction of the consequence of the action.  Don’t get rid of it altogether, but teach them there is a benefit to the truth. 

Remind them before:

“O.K., remember this is your opportunity to tell the truth and if you tell the truth things will not be as bad. Now, tell me what happened.” (I like “tell me what happened” rather than “did you hit her”).

“I punched her in her belly”

“I know, I saw you get angry and you told her to go away, which was fine, then you hit her.  You need to sit out of the game, but since you told me the truth, you can go back in after 5 minutes instead of 10.  O.K.?  Glad you told me the truth?  Good deal.  Take a seat.”  

This should be quick.  If the lie is told, proceed with whatever you were going to do, then have a brief talk afterward.  Don’t get into a “you lied to me!  I saw you do it!  rant.”  Again, we are focusing on rewarding truth telling rather than punishing lying.

I want to emphasize this works best if there is a consistent consequence for certain actions, so the kid has experience that one consequence is actually less severe than the other because he told the truth.  If you say, “it will be less,” but you make up your consequences on the fly (inconsistent), it might not be as powerful.