Q: We’re very concerned about our eight-year-old grandson’s lying. He always pleads innocence and wonders plaintively why no one ever believes him. When someone confronts him with some misdeed they saw him do (for example, poking holes in the back door screen), he merely shrugs his shoulders and grins. His parents have punished him repeatedly by taking away video privileges, but to no avail. They’ve also told him the story of the boy who cried wolf to explain why no one believed him. This has been going on since he was a small child. We’re all concerned about what’s looming down the road.
A: Lying is one of the most difficult problems to deal with. It quickly becomes a habit and turns into a major parent-child power struggle, both of which are obviously the case here. We psychologists are trained to think that habitual lying is an expression of deep-seated dysfunction in the family, but I haven’t found that to be always, or even usually, the case. Sometimes the answer to why a child lies is obvious, whereas other times it seems that the problem developed quite by accident.
What’s looming down the road is anyone’s guess. Sometimes, a child who’s a habitual liar outgrows the problem during his teen or early adult years. Unfortunately, sometimes, the problem persists well into adulthood and becomes a significant handicap to any chance the child may have at success in life.
A further problem is that, as you’ve discovered, the habitual liar often seems impervious to punishment. The secondary reward of playing cat-and mouse overrides the impact of any negative consequence. Let’s face it, during the game of cat-and-mouse, the child is in complete control of the family. That’s a powerful tonic!
I’ll wager that in response to his lying, this boy’s parents have taken privileges away for a day, maybe a week. If so, that’s not going to cut it. Serious problems require serious consequences. As I’ve said repeatedly in the past, you can’t stop a charging elephant with a flyswatter. With that in mind, I have some recommendations that have worked with other child prevaricators.
First, everyone needs to stop talking to him about the problem. You’ve all said enough. It’s time to act. Second, you cannot afford to ever give him the benefit of the doubt. If you suspect he’s lying, then he’s lying. End of conversation.
Third, take all his prized possessions, activities, and privileges away. Put a 30-block chart on the refrigerator. He gets his possessions, activities, and privileges back when he’s gone for 30 consecutive days without lying (or, more accurately, doing anything that causes anyone to even suspect he’s lying). Every day that he manages to keep his bad habit in check, he gets a smiley face in one of the blocks on the chart. On the other hand, if he lies at any time during the 30 days, the chart comes down and a new 30-day chart goes up. You do that even if he goes 28 days without lying and then lies on day 29. It’s absolutely essential that you cut him no slack during his rehabilitation.
Be aware that it may take him six months to succeed with a 30-day chart, but if you hang in there, this can pay off handsomely for everyone.
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (817) 295-1751.