A parent at the grocery store the other day confronted her child in a very intimidating manner and demanded, “Did you poke a hole in that package?” The boy – maybe eight years old – seemed to physically shrink. Guilt was written all over his face but he whispered, “No.”
Of course. Who would admit to making a mistake under such circumstances? Clearly his mother was upset with him and clearly he knew that admitting he’d damaged the package would lead to more anger, more yelling, maybe even being shaken, hit, or humiliated in front of all the other shoppers. Answering “no” was the safest option, even though it was a lie.
This is how it goes. We paint our children into a corner, confronting them with their errors in the most threatening way possible, and then we’re surprised when they lie to us about whatever it is we think they did. We make lying the only sensible action. We teach our children to lie.
Is this what you had in mind?
Our need to assign blame is endless. We want everything to be someone’s fault so we can be appropriately angry or disgusted with them. We do this when someone pulls in front of us on the highway, we do this when our spouse forgets to bring home the milk we asked for, we do this when a child brings home a bad report card. Someone is a fault and we want to identify the culprit. And then we want to punish him. Since the adults in our lives are unlikely to accept our controlling, blaming ways, we control and blame our children. Especially our children. Then when they lie to get out from under our anger, we blame and control them some more.
It’s time to stop the madness. Here’s how to teach your children that truth-telling, not lying, is the way to go.
- Make the truth unpunishable. If a child tells you the truth, you may not punish her. This is so sensible, we wonder why it’s so rare. Obviously, if you want the truth to be told when you ask for it, you cannot then punish the truth-teller, no matter what it is she’s done.
- Focus on solutions not on punishment. Punishment is never the solution, so don’t even go there. If something bad happened, affixing blame won’t make the bad thing go away. Since everyone makes mistakes, children need to know that it’s up to them to fix the mistakes they make. You do this by working together to find a solution to what happened.
- If you know the truth, don’t ask a question. If it’s obvious to you that your child poked a hole into a package of $20-a-pound steaks, don’t ask if he did it. Acknowledge the problem and move on to the solution. It’s the question “Did you do that?” that forces a child to lie, so if you know the answer, or have a good guess, then don’t ask. Just say, “Uh-oh! You poked a hole in that. Let’s tell the meat man about that and see what he can do.”
- Unsupport tattling. One of the many downsides of blaming people is that others feel encouraged to tattle on them. In an atmosphere of blame, bystanders want to deflect any suspicion from themselves onto the guilty party – or to frame someone else even if that person is not to blame. If you’ve been focused on blame, your other children may have become tattlers. To stop tattling, stop blaming but also stop acting on tattling. Don’t encourage your children to participate in the blame game.
- Forget trying to be perfect. Like our tattling children, the reason we blame a wrongdoer and try to force a confession is because we don’t want other people to think we are raising our kids to be hooligans or that we tolerate mistakes. We want to be perfect parents of perfect children who never do anything wrong. This is a fantasy. A perfect parent (if there is such a thing) wouldn’t make a scene in the grocery store over a damaged package. A perfect parent would model responsibility and truth-telling and engage the child in finding a solution to the problem that just came up.
A package with a hole in it isn’t the end of the world. It’s not worth ruining your day over or ruining your children’s day or making a scene in the market and gathering the stares of all the other shoppers. The parent I saw could have said, “Uh-oh! That package has a hole in it. It looks like it’s really easy to put your finger through that thin plastic.” I imagine that at this point the child will nod but if he didn’t poke a hole in the package, he might say, “No, it was that way already,” and the parent could believe him.
We can believe our children are telling the truth if we make the truth easier to tell than a lie. You could easily do that. Truly, you could.
© 2015, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Find out more at www.patricianananderson.com. Got a topic you’d like Dr. Anderson to write about? Tell us in a comment to this article.