Is your teenager lying to you? Probably. Think back: when you were a teen, did you ever lie to your parents or shade the truth in a way your parents would think was lying if they had known the whole story? Did you ever tell a portion of the truth, but not the whole truth? Have you done such things even as an adult? Even as recently as last week?
Studies have shown that 98% of American adults lie, meaning they don’t tell the whole truth all the time but edit the facts to protect themselves or to protect the person they’re lying to. A current insurance ad shows a fictive Abe Lincoln failing to lie to his wife at a moment when most of us would believe the kindest act would be to tell an untruth.
In the instances when a lie protects ourselves, not the listener, we may be forgiven for wanting to stay out of trouble. Guilt and shame are uncomfortable emotions most of us want to avoid. When guilt is accompanied by a punishment, we want to avoid admitting guilt even more. So lying is a natural reaction to wanting to avoid punishment and feel guilty and ashamed, as well as a way to avoid worrying or hurting the people we love. For children and teens, whose sense of integrity is still under development but whose sense of self-preservation is working just fine, lying seems like the logical course much of the time.
So is your teenager lying to you? Most likely, yes. The main question is what should you do about it?
First, never try to trap your child in a lie. If you know the truth or have a good suspicion, then don’t ask about the incident and provide an opportunity to lie. Instead, say what you know: “I see the bumper on the car is dented. Tell me about that.” This will get you more information than asking, “Did you dent the bumper?”
Second, never penalize the truth. This is a hard one, but it’s essential. When your child says, “Yes, I backed into a fence post when we took the car off-roading last night after Tommy gave us some beer,” you will be sorely challenged. But if you punish your child for telling the truth, you’ll never hear the truth again. So, after a stunned silence you will simply say, “Thanks for telling me. How do you plan to fix the bumper?” Later, you will talk about taking the car off-road and about Tommy and beer. But you will not punish your child for telling you the truth.
Third, model what you want to see. Tell your child the truth when she asks and if you can’t tell the truth about something, tell her that you can’t. But don’t lie. Demonstrate what integrity looks like. Telling the truth about anything is a leap of faith. Let your kids know that you can be trusted with the secrets they might want to keep to themselves.
None of us likes to be caught making a mistake. It’s natural to find another explanation, someone else to blame, even to plead total ignorance. Politicians in tight spots routinely answer, “I don’t remember” when asked if something happened on their watch. We shouldn’t be too surprised when our own children give similar excuses.
But we parents want to know. We want to know if our kid did something so we can assign someone to clean up the mess, make restitution, or apologize. We want to be able to feel a matter has been dealt with, and that means knowing whom to blame.
So what can you do if your child won’t own up? Here are some tips to encourage truth-telling.
If you know the answer, don’t ask. If you know your child broke the window – or have a pretty good idea that he did – then don’t give him the opportunity to lie to you. Don’t ask him if he broke it; tell him that he broke it. Say, “I see the window is broken. Tell me how that happened.” You might still get “I don’t know” in response, but because you’ve led with a statement, not a question, you are still in control of the situation. You can still say, “Well, you’re going to have to clean up the glass and pay out of your allowance for the replacement. Let’s go get the broom.” It doesn’t matter that your child “doesn’t know” how it happened or doesn’t want to tell you. You know he did it and you’ve said so.
Make it safe to tell the truth. One reason why children don’t admit to their missteps is they are afraid of being punished if they tell the truth. So make telling the truth punishment-free. If you know your child broke the window and you say, “I see the window is broken. Tell me how that happened,” and she tells you, that’s your cue to be understanding. You and your child can clean up the mess together and chip in together to replace the glass. Telling the truth is the grownup thing to do.
Realize that sometimes, you’ll never know. Much of life is mysterious and often that includes who did what. Trying to organize a truth squad to get to the bottom of a misdeed is often futile. The truth becomes more difficult to determine as children grow older, are better able to cover their tracks and are more skilled at deception. You’re fighting a losing battle if you think you have to get a confession every time something goes wrong.
But confession isn’t necessary for a point to be made. Even though you may never know how the window got broken, you can still engage your child in making things whole again. You can ask him to go online and find out how to replace window glass and do the job (assuming he’s old enough) or help you to do it. The lesson to be learned is “we’re a family and when a window is broken, it has to be fixed.” It’s a lesson in responsibility and stepping up. This lesson is almost as good as the lesson about always telling the truth; in fact, it’s really the same lesson.
When we deal truthfully with our children, not trying to catch them in a lie or making lying more painless than being honest, we demonstrate what integrity looks like. Even though our children will still shade the truth sometimes, they are learning how to be responsible and fair. We are showing them the way.
© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.
One day, you discover that something is missing from your desk or purse. You suspect your child.
One day, your child suddenly has things you can’t figure out how she acquired. She says a friend gave them to her or that she found them. But you doubt her story. You think she may have stolen them.
Why do otherwise good children take things that don’t belong to them? And what should you do when you find out?
Small children take things for a lot of reasons. Very young children and children without a lot of social experience take things because they don’t know it’s wrong to do that. They see something. They want it. They put it in their pocket. They act on impulse because they don’t have much control over their impulses and they “want what they want when they want it.” The concept of ownership is also poorly developed. As any two-year-old who has ever shouted “mine!” will tell you, if you can get it into your hand, it’s yours.
Slightly older kids might take things simply to confirm the rules. A child might pocket a trinket off your desk, even let you know he’s taken it, just to see what reaction this gets. He’s really asking you to tell him that stealing is wrong. A child at this stage is at war with himself. He knows what’s right and wrong, but his desire for whatever it is he took is greater than his cognitive ability to control his actions. He also finds it easy to delude himself into thinking this item really is his or that taking it really is fair (to himself).
Young children who are a little bit older than that are now fully aware of right and wrong and fully aware of social conventions about possessions. They understand that a toy can belong to someone else exclusively and that it’s wrong to take it. The child at this stage is no longer testing the rules; she knows them very well. So when the impulse to steal that toy overwhelms her, she will take it sneakily, maybe even implicating someone else. She will hide the toy so no one knows she took it, instead of playing with it openly. When the toy is discovered in her possession, she may pretend to not know how it got there.
Children who are older yet – in elementary school or even middle school – take things for a variety of reasons. They may steal to get back at the person they’re stealing from. They may steal because it seems dangerous and exciting. They may steal to fit in with a group of other kids who have made stealing their recreation. They may steal because they believe they “deserve” what they’re stealing and the person who has it now doesn’t need it or needs it less.
How you react to stealing depends on the age and understanding of the child.
- For very young children – kids under the age of three – simply recovering the item and reuniting it with its rightful owner may be enough, no need to say much of anything.
- For older children still learning the rules – those three- and four-year-olds – a gentle explanation of the rules, along with a request that the child return it to its owner – and help to do that, if necessary – will teach the rule without making a federal case of things.
- For the oldest preschoolers – older fours and five-year-olds, probably – who steal intentionally and with full understanding of their actions, a guided reflection on fairness and the feelings of others is in order. What’s needed here is a reminder of the child’s responsibility to observe and preserve the rights of each member of the classroom community, without putting her own rights above others’. This is a huge moral leap, that requires careful guidance on the part of adults.
- For school-age children – some kindergarteners and most older children – stealing is a bigger deal and should be evaluated thoughtfully. Is the child immature and acting “like a four-year-old”? Or is stealing part of a larger pattern of bullying, intimidation, and cheating? How you answer these questions determines if this is something you can resolve through careful monitoring and re-teaching or if you should seek professional help. The child at age 9 or 10 who steals for thrills, retribution, or to feel powerful needs serious guidance to find a more socially acceptable path.
The bottom line is this: discovering that a child has taken something that doesn’t belong to him probably is not so much a crime as a teachable moment. Be grateful for the opportunity the child’s action provides to discuss with him and with the entire class what it means to be fair and respectful of one another. Be grateful for this insight into your child’s thinking and social interactions, so you can set things straight. This is just a stumble on the way to becoming a responsible adult. Support your child in regaining her footing.
Most of all, pay attention. Children need your guidance to become the sort of people others trust.
© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Look for free downloads on Dr. Anderson’s website at www.patricianananderson.com.