A reader recently wrote me to ask for advice about a common parenting problem:
My 6-year-old lies to me on a daily basis. He hides food in his room and lies about it, among other things. How can I get him to tell the truth?
I consider a child’s misbehavior to be a flashing neon sign announcing that something else is going on that needs to be addressed. In other words, the lying and deceptive behavior is a symptom of something else.
It may be that he wants something so badly that he’s willing to risk getting in trouble. It could be a passive way of asserting some semblance of control over his life, especially if he feels out of control, hurt or angry. Although your son may intellectually know that it’s wrong to lie, he might have trouble managing his impulses when he’s tempted by something he wants badly. And finally, there are some children who blur the line between truth and lies, believing the version of events they’ve told you so passionately that they actually forget they’ve strayed far from the truth.
If you just focus on getting him to admit he’s lied, he’ll simply become a better liar. Instead, sit down with him and have a conversation to get things out in the open. Hold your position as the calm, confident captain of the ship looking to solve a problem, rather than an angry, hurt mother who is taking his lying personally.
You: “Sweetheart, I notice there are crumbs in your room.”
Child: “I don’t know anything about it! I haven’t been eating in there!”
You (not taking the bait): “Do you ever wonder why we don’t like you to eat in your room…?”
Child: “I’m NOT eating in there, Mommy!”
You: “Well, I heard you say that. And I wonder if you ever wish you could eat in your room.”
Child: “My friends get to eat in their rooms.”
You: “I guess it seems unfair that you don’t get to something they get to do…”
Child: “You make a lot of mean rules, Mommy. I don’t like your rules.”
You: “It’s hard for you, isn’t it honey, when there are things you want that I won’t let you have…”
Child (getting tearful): “Yeah…I don’t like it…I saw those cookies and I knew you wouldn’t let me have any so I took some to my room…”
We’re not trying to force the child to confess as much as find the root of the problem so we can actually solve it. Until you let your child feel heard, you won’t know if his lying is a result of longing for cookies, being upset with a missing Daddy, having poor impulse control, or something else.
By allowing your child to feel that it’s safe to tell you his truth, you’ll eventually get to the heart of the problem.