Lying is one thing I truly can not stand. I must be able to trust you to really like you. I tell my kids it is always better to tell the truth when they have done something wrong than it is to lie. Even if they get in trouble, it will be less trouble than they would for lying. Today, I have a guest post from Leon Scott Baxter, the author of the newly released parenting book, Secrets of Safety-Net Parenting, and the founder of the website SafetyNetters.com. Leon shares with us a very personal piece on children lying and breaking the cycle.
To me, his article is about so much more than how to deal with a child lying. It is about dealing with ourselves and breaking the cycle of poor parenting or poor lying behavior. It is about rising above, which truly takes effort. I found his guest post very moving and each of us will probably learn something different.
Causes of Children’s Lying Behavior
by Leon Scott Baxter
I teach third grade, and eight-year olds aren’t always the most honest. Some years, more than others, I’ll find dishonesty lurking behind the lunch boxes and backpacks. Every year there’s cheating. Some years, there’ll be stealing. But, most prevalent in the realm of dishonesty is children lying.
Why A Child Lies
Kids lie. They mostly lie when they get caught doing something wrong, so they try to lie their way out of it. I find two tests with the exact same answers, obvious that one was copied from the other. Instead of fessing up, some of these young folks dig themselves deeper into their hole, denying the lying.
You might wonder how I can tell when a child is lying versus telling the truth. I have a lot of experience with lying kids, because I used to be one. I know all the tricks because I used them myself.
And, like my students who lie to avoid getting deeper into trouble, I would lie to my parents out of fear, fear of being hit. I wasn’t the perfect kid, so I would do wrong at times at school or at home, but I learned when I admitted my blunders, I would often be struck, so I learned to lie as a defense mechanism.
I remember being four-years old. My dad had struck me one evening, giving me a black eye. Although I had been hit plenty of times, a black eye was a very rare occurrence. So, when I went to preschool the following day everyone asked what had happened. I didn’t think much of it. I assumed all kids got hit, so I told the kids and adults who asked that my dad had hit me.
That evening when my dad returned from work, he asked me if I had told anyone that he had given me the black eye. I could tell from the look on his face that the truth could get me into trouble. I had learned that in situations like these, lying was the only possibility of avoiding another beating.
Problem was, being only four, I wasn’t adept yet at how to lie. So, instead of lying and saying I didn’t tell anyone he had blackened my eye, I lied about who I had told.
I never saw him raise his hand, but I did see his open palm right before it struck my cheek slamming my head against the wall. I was so scared I didn’t cry. My father looked down at me and asked, “Are you going to tell anyone about that?”
I shook my head, no.
Breaking The Cycle
I remember promising myself that I would never hit my children when I became a parent. There was no way I was going to impose that kind of fear on my own children.
Almost thirty years later, Riley, my firstborn was two and had been acting up, wouldn’t listen to the directions I gave her. So, I slapped her thigh. It wasn’t hard. I did it to get her attention. But, the moment I did, I knew I had made a huge mistake.
And, like me when my father slapped my head into the wall, Riley didn’t cry. She just looked at me…shocked. Then she asked, “Why you hit me, Daddy?”
No one had ever hit her before and she had been taught that we use words, that we don’t hit. I felt horrible. I felt guilty. And, I was mad at her for making me break my promise to myself. I answered, “Because you were disobeying.” And, before she could say anything more, I stormed out of the room.
It took a good twenty minutes before I came to grips with what I did. I came back to Riley and explained that what she did was wrong, but what I did was far worse, and I vowed to her that I would never strike her again…and I haven’t.
I feel fortunate that I was able to break the cycle of physical abuse. When I had struck Riley, I saw how easily cycles continue regardless of us knowing that our actions are wrong. What we learn from our parents when we are young very often becomes who and what we become when we become parents ourselves.
The reality is that we all have something that we want to avoid passing on to our children: debt, poor health, physical abuse, cheating on our partner, substance abuse, divorce, etc…
Parents need to do more than to tell our kids not to do it when they grow up. We need to figure out a way to start dealing with it while our children are young. We parents need to break the cycle so our children don’t inherit our vices because it’s terribly hard for them not to become us, their parents, when they have kids of their own.
Maybe the students who lie in my classroom learn it from their parents. Maybe they don’t. Either way we need to model in ourselves honesty, and if we are not, it’s not too late to change that and reverse that cycle, but it starts with us and what we do more so than what we say.
Thanks again to Leon Scott Baxter for sharing his story.
How To Deal With A Lying Child
So in conclusion, approach a lying child with empathy and curiosity to understand their mindset. Know that they will not always communicate to you everything they are feeling or thinking just because you ask. However, asking does give them the opportunity to share especially if feel genuine interest and concern.
- Explain that you know they have lied and that concerns you because it makes it hard to trust them.
- Tell them you’d like to know why they lied and ask them to share.
- Validate that sometimes it is scary to admit they have done something wrong.
- Encourage them to always tell the truth because it will always be better in your eyes to admit a mistake and fix it than to deny it.
As you have this conversation with your child, remember what Mr. Rogers said, “We speak with more than our mouths. We listen with more than our ears.” If you approach the child with anger, their first instinct is to protect themselves, and if they feel that lying will do that, well, they will lie. So approach your child in a calm, reasonable manner and discuss why you value honesty. Explain to them that while it is a common error to lie, they need to learn the importance of truth as part of growing up.
Kelly Yust of Little Sunshine put it this way, “Trust your child. This may feel difficult to do at times, but lean into it. Whether you’re an adult or a child, everyone is more likely to be honest when they feel trusted. Tell your child you trust them to tell the truth and be honest. And believe them when they tell you something unless you’re proven wrong. You may be amazed at how willing they are to tell the truth when they feel safe and believed.”
Calling a kid liar or overreacting to the situation is not going to help anything. It will only escalate the situation. Remember that mistakes happen and they are learning. Ask them to use this as an opportunity to do better next time. Help them understand that the truth is always better than a lie.