Q: We are very concerned about our 8-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 (example: poking holes in the back door screen), he merely shrugs his shoulders and grins. His parents have punished him repeatedly by taking away screen privileges, but to no avail. They’ve also told him the story of the boy who cried wolf to explain why no one believes him. This has been going on since he was a small child. We are all concerned about what is looming down the road.
A: Lying is one of the most difficult of problems to solve. It quickly become 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 have not found that to be always, or even usually, the case. Sometimes the answer to “why?” is obvious; sometimes, it seems as if the problem developed quite “by accident.”
What’s looming down the road is anyone’s best guess. Sometimes, a child who is a habitual liar “outgrows” (for lack of a better term) the problem during his teen or early adult years. Sometimes, the problem persists well into adulthood and becomes a significant handicap to any chance the individual may have at life success.
The further problem is that—as you folks have 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. You can’t stop a charging elephant with a flyswatter. With that in mind, I have some recommendations that I’ve seen work with other child prevaricators.
First, everyone needs to stop talking to him about the problem, including repeating the story of the boy who cried wolf. You’ve all said enough. It’s time to act. Second, you cannot afford to ever give him the benefit of doubt. If you think he’s lying, then he’s lying. End of conversation, end of story.
Third, take all of his prized possessions, activities, and privileges away. Put up a 30-block chart on the refrigerator. He gets his possessions, activities, and privileges back when he has gone for 30 consecutive days without lying (or, more accurately, doing anything that causes anyone to even THINK 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. If he lies, 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 folks cut him no slack during his rehabilitation.
Be aware that it may take him six months to succeed with a 30-day chart. If you hang in there, this can pay off handsomely for everyone.
Family psychologist John Rosemond: johnrosemond.com and parentguru.com.