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Marian Wright Edelman: If we don't stand up for children, then we don't stand for much.

 lying                                                                                         

Readers have asked me about children lying. In particular, this was a case where some children were accusing another child of doing something wrong and the accused child saying he did not do it. The reader had concerns that either the boy was not lying and others were falsely accusing him, or he was lying and then lying about lying. Here is my response:

Lying is a difficult problem without an easy answer, and one that I have seen time and time again. How you handle it depends on your tolerance of the problem (how much it is getting on your nerves) and the personalities and type of children involved in the lying scheme of things.

If an adult is not bugged by the problem of a child lying and no one is getting hurt, I tend to advise using "ignoring" as a technique of stopping the lying. Remember, there has to be a reason behind the lying. If the problem is the kids reporting lying that did not actually happen, then they are probably doing so for attention. If the child in question is actually lying and the others are relaying the information, then the problem is most likely a defense mechanism.

Ignoring the tattle-telling will most likely extinguish it. When a child comes to me and tattles, I just hold up my hand and stop them in their tracks, saying, I don't want to hear it. I do this because calling attention to the lying may reinforce the wrong behavior. If a child gets no satisfaction on telling on another, then they will stop doing so. If the child is actually lying and others are reporting it, that is another problem. Still, you do not want to reward the tattle-tales for their efforts wrong or right as they are.

In one of my other classes Behavior Management: Winning the Battle, I go extensively into how and why particular behaviors become. A child who has had to be on the defense because of a threatening environment often uses lying as a way of protecting the self. Typically, these children have gone through abuse, neglect, or have not resolved a family issues such as divorce, frequent moves, or some other interruption or disruption in their lives. Lying becomes a way of protecting the self either from a real or perceived threat, and then lying turns into a habit that is used in other situations even when it is not needed. The pattern of lying then must be broken and/or the child must be taught a more appropriate defense mechanism.

Now, how do you know which kids are telling the truth? You may not ever know if the problem is deep enough. One tactic I like to use is to sit all those in question down for a little open conversation. I start it with something like,

"Ben, Jason and Susie keep telling me that you are lying. I am not accusing you and I am not saying I believe them over you. I don't know who to believe, you see, because I trust all three of you. You are all such honest, good kids that I can't imagine any one of you lying."

I do this as a way of applying a little guilt anonymously and as a way of making my expectations clearly known. What I am saying is "I am not blaming you, but I do not tolerate lying."

Next, I tell the kids we need to talk about it and resolve the issue, something like this, "Well, I am tired of hearing about the lying, and do not know what to do about it. Suppose the three of you come up with a plan to help me decide what to do." Then I let them stew and argue on the issue for awhile. Typically, something will come out in the discussion that will help me see who is telling the truth and who is not. Sometimes, however, I am not so lucky. Still, this step is important, as I have put the children in charge of the problem and removed myself from the annoyance while still providing support and teaching the children a valuable lesson in problem solving, negotiating, honesty, etc.

If I think Ben is lying, in the end I will tell the other two that this is no longer their issue and they are not to report Ben's lying to me again, that I will handle it from here. But I do not do that until they have been in the process of deciding what should be done with someone who lies and someone who tattles AND in coming up with ideas about how one can tell if someone is lying or telling the truth.

Do you see what I am doing here? Giving the problem back to them and helping them solve it.

Now, if Ben does have a problem and is lying, then, there is a reason for the lying as stated above. It would be important to find out what is causing the lying and to confront Ben openly and lovingly, while helping him develop more appropriate behaviors to get his needs met in place of lying. I then help Ben change the lying to a more appropriate behavior through positive reinforcements, contracting, rewards, or some other non-negative method.

Need help? Dr. Catherine Swanson Cain, PhD, LMFT offers online consultation and e-therapy on a variety of childhood, and personal issues. Her online virtual office is safe, confidential and easy to use. Visit PediatricBehavior for more information or to schedule an appointment.

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Revised: 10/19/2008.