Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Liar, liar, pants on fire

"Everybody lies." - Gregory House MD. A serious topic for mid-week - what do you do when your child lies?

I will go out on a limb and say that every child has or will tell lies at some point in time. If you say your child has never lied, either 1) you are lying, or 2) your child has been lying to you about not lying.

It could be as simple as saying that he didn’t eat the cookie when he actually did, or that she didn’t know there was spelling that day when she really forgot to learn it. It could be lying by omission – your child not telling you there’s Chinese camp so he won’t have to go.

Whatever it is, I think I speak for all parents when I say that it’s devastating to discover that your child has been telling falsehoods. It’s the shock of realising that your little angel is capable of manipulating the truth, sometimes right in your face.

My first big encounter with Andre telling fibs was earlier this year. A few times, he came home from school with pen marks on his uniform. This really vexed me as the marks are impossible to remove. He told me his friend did it. When this occurred for the third time, I was fuming. I interrogated him and asked who the culprit was. He was very reluctant to say (this should have been a clue right there) but eventually, he said it was the girl sitting next to him in class.

So I wrote a note in Andre’s diary to his teacher telling her about the incident and asked her to deal with the situation. The next day, I asked Andre if he had shown his teacher the note. He said yes. When asked what the teacher did, he told me she had taken the girl outside the classroom and reprimanded her. Satisfied, I thought that was the end of the story.

Two days later, I received a call from Andre’s teacher. She apologised for not replying to my note earlier, she said she had just seen it as she had taken his diary to write a note to me. She went on to say that she had asked the girl what had happened and the girl admitted to drawing on Andre’s shirt, but also that they “drew on each other”. Upon questioning, Andre did not deny this.

I was appalled, to say the least. It wasn’t the fact that Andre had drawn on his friend’s uniform, it was the fact that he had deliberately kept my note from his teacher and engineered an entire story about his teacher punishing the culprit. A bald-faced lie.

When Andre came home from school, I asked him sternly, “Did you show Mrs Wong the note I wrote the other day?” He didn’t notice my tone at first and immediately said “yes”. I repeated the question, very fiercely this time. It was then that he saw the look on my face and he fell silent. Then his eyes filled with tears and he shook his head.

I’d never been so mad. After I got him to admit the whole truth, I gave him a long lecture about the ills of lying (and especially lying to his MOTHER). I meted out the harshest punishment I’d ever given him – two months without computer games. I knew this would hit home because the two months straddled the mid-year holidays and that was when he was looking forward to his computer games the most. I couldn’t sleep that night – am I raising a kid with low morals?

Since then, I’ve spoken to other parents and read up a little on why children lie (please note that this is for kids aged six to ten, ie it’s not fantasy or make-believe as is common with kids below six years old). What I’ve come to realise is that a child’s understanding of right and wrong is not on the same level of consciousness as an adult’s. Lying doesn’t make the child an unethical person. A lie is motivated by the desire to avoid getting into trouble, protect himself or win approval. Think about it, how often have we admonished our kids for being less than perfect, eg. breaking something or forgetting something? It’s no wonder that their first instinct when they’ve done something wrong is to cover it up.

By the way, all children lie, regardless of their maturity. I’ve encountered Lesley-Anne lying to me and a friend of mine caught her daughter, who is usually good as gold, copying the answers to questions in an assessment book. My own sister, who is now as upright and truthful an adult as you’ll ever find, once forged my mother’s signature in her spelling book to avoid getting scolded for her low marks.

It’s a delicate balancing act. On one hand, we need to emphasis the importance of telling the truth, but not out of fear of punishment, otherwise it has no roots. I have a friend whose son was less than truthful on one occasion. She grounded him but later found out that he had subsequently lied to cover up his initial lie. This is a frightening possibility - that instead of learning to tell the truth, our kids learn that they need to be smarter about covering their tracks. Ironically, when parents say things like “Don’t let me find out you’ve been playing instead of studying!” all the kid hears is, “I better not let her find out.”

The occasional lie is not indicative of a serious problem... until it becomes chronic. To avoid getting to that stage, it's important to try and instil a habit of telling the truth. From what I’ve read, these are some of the methods parents can employ:

1) Commend your kids for telling the truth. They are taking a risk by admitting their mistakes. Help them acknowledge their mistakes and accept the consequences, instead of focusing on the mistake.

2) If punishment is necessary, make it a logical consequence of the incident. Eg. if your child has broken something at home, don’t dock privileges, which just sends the message: “I’m taking away something you like because I don’t like what you’ve done” and creates resentment. Instead, commend her for telling the truth and ask her to help pay for the item, which fosters responsibility for actions. (Aside: Andre's no computer games punishment might seem contrary to this rule, but he didn't tell the truth in the first place and I did stress that the severity of the punishment was because he lied. He understood the reasoning and accepted the punishment like a man, not a single complaint).

3) If your kids lie, focus on the consequence of the lie, not the lie itself. Stress the importance of honesty and how telling lies can break the trust between the child and his friends, the child and his parents.

4) Most importantly, do not label. Don’t call your child a liar – labelling creates helplessness and may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, ie the child hears that he is a liar and starts to believe this is who he really is.

It takes patience and hard work. I’m the first to admit that I don’t consistently follow the above. But I’m giving it my best shot because I believe that a good foundation in the early years will save parents a lot of heartache later.


eunice said...

I read some where that smart children learn to lie earlier. It's that they realise cause and effect and know right from wrong.

I remember how upset and mad I felt when Sean first told me a lie. Like you I talked to him about it and hopefully he understands.

Hahah... like your sis, I too did forge my dad's signature when I was 8 on a report card. Guess I turned out OK.

Alcovelet said...

Hahaha! I'm not the only one to forge a signature on the report card!!! And all because I failed Art!!

I went through this with RK earlier this year. I had told him not to do something dangerous, and he deliberately ignored it and got a cut. He "missed out" telling me that bit (was insistent that he was nowhere near the place I told him to avoid), but I found out anyway. When I confronted him, he said, "I knew you'd be angry, so I didn't tell you!." That made me suck in my breath and think hard about what my priorities are (I think the next 20 yrs of his life flashed before me - not very attractively too). We had a chat about it, and these days, I tell him about consequences. Your rules certainly work, because I often commend him on his courage to tell the truth.

Parenting sure is tough!

monlim said...

Hahaha!! I'm just wondering if half the signatures on report cards are forged by kids!! But more soberly, imagine how the fear of failure and admonishment has caused so many kids to do this...

Lilian said...

Such a good lesson for parents. Ask ourselves, why do our kids feel the need to lie to us? It's always about our expectations, and their fears. Not because they are really naughty.

Before he went to school, I asked Brian to try and remember the incidents when he lied to me, but honestly we both can't remember. I'm 100% sure he has done it; usually he gets caught pretty fast, cos when I ask him if he's done something, if it's a no, he'll try to get away by mumbling, "Mmm" to mean yes. His "mmm" is half-hearted, so I raise my voice and ask again, then he'll go, "er, no." There was once though that he gave a vehement YES! when it wasn't true, but I can't remember what it was about, and it struck me then, he's learning to lie more convincingly, and my heart dropped a little.

But as I said, it's the circumstances the kids are put in that make them lie. We've gotta create an open line of communication with them so that they don't feel they need to lie to us. It's not easy of course. But it's even more crucial now for those of us whose kids are getting into their teens. *shudder*

monlim said...

Lilian, I hear you. I used to always know when Lesley-Anne was lying cos she's such a bad liar - dare not look at me, mumble, etc. But once they hit their teens, it's out of our control and we just have to pray that their upbringing, conscience and God will keep them on the straight and narrow.

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