I didn’t punish my son for lying to me. Here’s why.
I love my boys to the end of the earth and back. They are smart, funny, silly, and always ready for a good time.
At 8 and 9 years old, I feel like we are in the Golden Years of parenting. The boys can do tons of basic things for themselves, but we are still in full-on fun mode around here. We have rules, high behavior expectations, and chores, but most of our interactions with the kids are playing games, snuggling, and chatting about their day.
The problem with the older one started out small. First, it was swearing up and down that he DID brush his teeth, when the dry toothbrush was telling a different story. I mean what kid hasn’t tried to pull that one off? We let it slide the first handful of times, but not for long.
Then there was the phase where he would hide one of his brother’s toys and then pretend to help look for it, nearly convincing us that he really didn’t know where the item was. Once we declared that HE wouldn’t get to play with his favorite toy until his brother’s missing item was found, he would walk right over to where it was and magically find it. Hmmm.
Today, it was about a reading quiz he was supposed to take on our home computer. I said he needed to take the quiz as soon as we got home from school today. He said he had already taken the quiz. However, we had unsuccessfully attempted it last night right before bed, so I knew this was very unlikely.
Me: How did you already take it?
Him: I woke up early this morning and came downstairs and took it.
Me: You’re sure you took it?
Him: Yes, I totally did.
Me: You’re, like, 100% sure you took it this morning?
Me (not convinced at all): Ok, I’ll just check on it when we get home.
Him: Well, at least I’m pretty sure I took it…I mean…I don’t remember exactly…but I think I did.
Me: Well did you take it or not, buddy?
Him: Yeah…yeah I did…I think…
I’m sure you know by now that the quiz had not been taken. I had him take the quiz while I decided what to do next. As the parent, I could have taken a lot of different approaches. I could have yelled. I could have chastised him, shamed him. I could have used this as an excuse to rant about any number of different things.
Beyond the lecture, there was the question of “and then what?” Do I take away video games? Make him to go his room? Have him do something to make up for it? What is the best recourse here?
I thought seriously about taking the video games for a day or two. That would really get his attention. If there is another incidence like this after today, we will go there, but not today. I had a decision to make, but first I had to get really clear in my mind. What do I want? The real end goal is not to have a child who is embarrassed, shamed, upset, stressed, or angry. What do I truly want here? I want a child who doesn’t lie. Mostly, I want to be able to trust my children and take them at their word.
Yelling and taking away games would create a lot of anger and stress if that was what I was going for, but it wouldn’t give him the internal desire to tell the truth. Believe me: lecturing, chastising, and taking away privileges was standard in my house growing up, and it never made me feel anything but anger or encouraged me to do anything but become sneakier. I wanted to help him have a mindset shift, so we had a conversation.
He tried to explain himself, deny that he had lied. He tried to convince me that he simply didn’t remember if he had taken the quiz or not. I asked him to please stop trying to explain himself or convince me that hadn’t lied. I told him that I wasn’t going to punish him for lying, but that I was very concerned about how many times we’d gone through this cycle in different ways lately.
I spoke to him about trust. What it is, what it means. What can happen when you don’t have it. I told him to start paying attention to how often daddy and I say, “ok, I’ll go check,” after he says he did something, because we don’t believe him. We don’t trust him, because we’ve caught him doing this many times. I explained how trust gets broken down one instance at a time, and how it take a while to build back up, because it has to be regained one instance at a time.
I asked him to think ahead. If we can’t trust him now with smaller things like brushing his teeth, hiding toys, and doing school quizzes, what happens when he becomes a teenager and he gets accused of doing something wrong at school or at a friend’s house? How can we believe him then if we already don’t believe him now?
This conversation was had very calmly, and spoken at a lower than normal volume because I knew his fight-or-flight response was going in full force. He’d been caught doing something wrong, and he wasn’t sure what would happen next. He was already full of stress, embarrassment, and tears. I didn’t need to impose more of that on him.
Trust goes both ways. My parents would always say, “you know you can tell me anything, right?” and I would always roll my eyes on the inside, knowing it was absolutely not true. I knew they would lose their cool, hold grudges, make snap decisions, and create total chaos if I ever told them anything serious or bad. Our children learn to trust us when we become a safe container for them to learn, grow, express themselves, and change their minds/behavior without fear of how we will react.
Today was about building trust, not being right or exerting control. This same approach is beneficial in close relationships, in leadership positions, and even with random strangers we come across throughout our day. Before we open our mouths to react, to lecture, to rant, or to control, take a moment to clarify your end goal. Choose to keep love, connection, true leadership, and mutual growth at the top of your priority list, and you will realize benefits in ways you might never have known were possible.
Julie Crenshaw is a Life Coach and author. Her book, “Navigating & Avoiding Awkward Conversations: How to speak to anyone about anything,” has helped readers all over the world improve their communication skills. Follow her on Instagram to learn more about the art of conversation.