Despite wanting to raise honest children many parents create children that lie, that is, parents teach their child to be dishonest. Not on purpose. In fact, it drives most parents crazy as they try to catch and correct the lies in a never-ending spiral of frustration. The first step to ending it is understanding why it happens.
Children do many things naturally. Healthy babies cry at birth. Crying clears the lungs and tells the world that there is a helpless newborn here, come and help out. Babies are more attracted to faces than anything else because their life depends on being responsive to the people around them. Children crave adult attention, and will repeat whatever actions result in the most attention. Children naturally avoid things and situations which have proven to be hurtful or harmful. This last one—that is where the lying comes in.
As I said, parents teach their children to lie. They do this by asking questions such as “Did you break this?” “Did you spill the juice?” “Have you brushed your teeth?” Often, the questions are asked by parents who have a stern tone of voice and an unyielding expression on their face. Children quickly learn that an honest answer is going to result in unpleasantness. Sometimes a ‘no’ answer is accepted and life goes on.
Here is where things get tricky. Parents logically think that if children get in trouble for their lies—that is get caught and punished—that children will stop lying. Didn’t we just agree that children learn to avoid unpleasantness? Yep. However, we also agreed that children crave adult attention and will do whatever it takes to get it. It isn’t something they think about or plan out, it is something that happens naturally. If a parent gives more attention to lies than to the good stuff, guess what happens? The same goes for whining, arguing, and fussing. Children get into the habit of gaining parental attention in all the wrong ways and parents get into the habit of feeding the habit.
The good news/bad news is that this dynamic can be changed. But it takes time and effort on the part of the parents. First, stop asking “did you?” questions. For example, if you know your child hasn’t brushed his teeth, tell him to go brush, keep your face and voice neutral, and use a minimum of words. If he argues, don’t engage, just say something that indicates that life goes on after the correction, such as “After you are finished brushing, I’ll read your bedtime story” and then walk to the bedroom without further words or looking back. Second, find ways to give positive attention to the behaviors you want to encourage. Such as, “Thank you for brushing your teeth without a reminder” or, “Your teeth are nice and shiny now.”
Remember, give your child a lot of attention for the behaviors you would like to see increase and little attention for the behaviors you would like to see decrease. It may feel counterintuitive to you but, in truth, it works like magic.
Evelyn Satterlee, M.Ed.