Helping Children Tell the Truth

Even the most well-behaved children tend to lie. Sometimes the lies are about things that don’t really matter, but it can be frustrating when your child continues to lie in the face of overwhelming proof to the contrary.

As a child, how many times were you told that you wouldn’t get into “as much” trouble if you were honest and told the truth? Almost every parent I know has uttered this inalienable truth at least once to their children. Do you remember what you heard when you were told that as a child? Here’s what I heard: “If you keep on lying, you are really going to get into trouble—but, you already lied, so you’ve already taken the risk and punishment is inevitable. So, if I keep lying and stick to my story, it’s possible there will be no punishment.” No one likes to be punished, so it is logical that most children will choose the least painful path; this, to most children, means the lying route.

Unless we take away the consequences for telling the truth, our children will keep lying. If you want them to stop, you need to help your child understand, “As long as you tell me the truth, you will not be punished.” This is a concept explored in greater detail within Nancy Buck’s book, Peaceful Parenting. You might be asking yourself, “But what if my child did something that requires punishment—something seriously against the rules?” I still say remove the consequences for lying, and it becomes more likely that you will get the truth.

However, before you come to this decision, you must decide whether or not you really want the truth. I once spoke to the mother of one of my sons’ friends; she was very upset that a boy had stayed overnight at her home and shared a bed with his girlfriend. While she was aware they were both sleeping at her house, she did not want them sleeping together. The two disregarded her wishes but felt they complied with the main issue by sleeping on top of the covers, fully clothed. When the mother discovered them still sleeping, she was livid. She called me to vent her frustration. In her ravings, she said, “Well, I know I did the same thing and worse, but at least I had the decency to lie to my parents!” I asked her if she really preferred being lied to, and she responded affirmatively.

Now, if you are a parent who would really rather not know, then this article is not for you. I am writing to those parents who want to know what is truly going on with their children and who can handle the truth when presented with it, rather than feeling the urge to punish their child.

My sister-in-law came to me for advice in dealing with her eleven-year-old daughter who developed a lying habit, particularly around her school work. She tried everything. She had mentioned the universal law: “If you tell me the truth, you won’t get into near as much trouble as if you lie to me.” My niece stuck to her story like glue. Then my sister-in-law began to take away extracurricular activities to hopefully impress upon my niece the importance of her school work. What do you think happened to the lying? It continued without impact.

When I advised her to take away the consequences for telling the truth, she couldn’t believe what I was suggesting. I was not saying that she and my niece couldn’t have a conversation about whatever the problem was, and I wasn’t saying that they wouldn’t make a plan for more effective behavior in the future, but there would be no consequence for telling the truth.

All she has to do now is remind my niece that there will no punishment if she tells the truth, and my niece has been coming clean. The advantage to this is that you, the parent, aren’t spending a lot of time attempting to “get to the bottom of things!” You get the truth up front, and then you can see the problem that you really need to manage.

The advantage is that you can take a collaborative approach with your child on how to do things better the next time. You can spend your time discussing what got in the way of your child being successful and how you, together, can remove those obstacles. This strengthens the relationship so much more than trying to figure out who’s telling the truth and who isn’t and then doling out the appropriate punishment for the lie. Wouldn’t you rather put an end to the lying and get at the real source of the problem?

Try it and see if it helps, but don’t do it if you would prefer not knowing!

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