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My six year-old son has recently started lying almost constantly. This is somewhat puzzling to us, because:

  • He almost never gets away with it. Fortunately for us, he isn't very good at it yet, but he is getting better.
  • It causes him to lose the activity or object he was lying to obtain, and then some. This is the consequence we use most often, because it is the closest to the natural consequence. For example, if he lies about being done eating, so he can go play, the consequence is not only does he not get to play now, he has to wait longer to play than it would have taken him just to finish eating.
  • He lies even when it hurts his case. For example, he will lie to try to get a cookie, in situations where he could have gotten one just for asking.
  • His untrustworthiness causes us to check up on him more, which ironically makes it harder for him to get away with stuff.

It's gotten to the point where he is constantly lying to try to stay out of trouble, but the biggest reason he's getting in trouble is because of the lying. My answer to this related question isn't working anymore, partially because he tells the truth so infrequently now that there are no opportunities to reward him for it, and partially because he has started taking advantage of the rare leniency to try getting away with even more.

My question is different from What are appropriate methods for disciplining a primary schooler for lying? because typical rewards and consequences both seem to be setting up a perverse incentive in his case. How can I break this behavior spiral so normal occasional discipline will work again?

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What is his attitude while he is lying, and what is his attitude at other times? Does he seem generally happy when he does it? resentful? fearful? stubborn? teasing? Does he look right at you with wide eyes? Most importantly, does it seem like he thinks he is fooling you? (You see where I'm going with this... wondering whether he's caught up in the cycle himself, is unaware there is a cycle, or feels he is being kept on too tight a leash and has found this way to push your buttons/get some freedom.) –  Ossum's Mom Jan 9 at 22:07
    
He smiles with wide eye contact and overcompensating nodding, with a sort of lilt to his voice, but at the same time looking like he's trying to act naturally. It's hard to describe in words. "That was fast. Did you finish eating?" "YeeeeEEEEeees" (large nod) "Are you lying?" "NoooOOOOooo" (large head shake) "I'm going to check, are you sure you aren't lying?" (Puts his eyes up to think for a moment) "NoOOOoo, I'm not lying." (large shake). He's slowly getting better at the subtlety, though. –  Karl Bielefeldt Jan 9 at 22:23
    
Yes, it seems like he thinks he's fooling us. I don't think he's aware he could be making things easier on himself, or he doesn't care. I think it's partially the ADHD trait of not giving future consequences as much weight as the present. To him, a light consequence now is worse than a heavy consequence later. –  Karl Bielefeldt Jan 9 at 22:43
    
Are you sure (you probably are) that he really understands what you mean by lying? It sounds almost like he is trying to play a cutesy game, maybe modeling behavior he has seen in friends or on TV? Also, is it feasible to avoid asking him questions that require factual answers? In other words, can you avoid (for a while) setting up situations that provide him the opportunity to lie? –  KitFox Jan 10 at 0:39
    
What I'm thinking of is something like "Are you full?" and if he says yes, you take his plate or whatever. In this case, you don't care if he's truthful or not. There's no checking, no dwelling on it. If he's lying, his consequence is being hungry. There is no reward in either case. –  KitFox Jan 10 at 0:44

1 Answer 1

I'd say you've inadvertently let him develop a pattern. He's found he can lie and the world doesn't end, it's comfortable, and now it's what he does... plus he's got a challenge, because he can see if he keeps trying, he may get good enough to fool you.

I wouldn't keep increasing the punishment. You'll either run out of stuff in your arsenal or the punishments will get too painful for both of you. Instead:

The first thing I'd do is break the pattern. Try as much as possible to avoid the trigger: any question to which he can lie. So, don't ask questions to which you know the answer to; don't ask questions when you can go check what the answer is, instead; and if you have to ask such a question, and you're pretty sure he's lying about the answer, don't let him dig himself in deeper. You're just challenging him by doing that. Literally. (Go read over what you've written.)

When he does lie, and these instances should be rare since you're not giving him opportunity, just sigh in disappointment/make a disappointed face (whatever; let him know you're not impressed), and tell him to do the thing he said he didn't do, or whatever. Don't punish him, or make it a nominal punishment, since it's not working anyway. Or raise your eyebrows: "Really? Was that smart to say that to get a cookie? How about may I please have a cookie?" You're not impressed. Move on.

At the same time I would shift the emphasis to telling the truth. Ask the librarians for books (picture books and harder ones) you can read to him where telling the truth saves the day. Where people relying on each other and trusting each other saves the day. Make up stories where amazing things happen when a child tells the truth.

I told my daughter about the Boy Who Cried Wolf, but she really loved to hear The Girl Who Saved The Sheep, which I told her after we'd done the other a few times. (It had all sorts of details, how she got up early and made herself a lunch, called the dogs, got the sheep out of the barn, took them up the mountainside... and when she ran to the village to get help from the wolves, everyone came right away, one man had a frying pan, a lady had a bull cutter (my kid's favorite outdoor tool)... and only one sheep was killed, but two dogs were hurt but they carried them back to the village and tied big ribbons on them because they were heroes, and they got well... etc.) I had to tell this story over and over again. I'm guessing that it was given extra savor by the existence of The Boy Who Cried Wolf; so I would make the truth-telling kid like him somehow, and the boy who cried wolf, not.

Start conversations about these stories.

"Gee, that kid did something really brave in that situation. He knew he was going to get in trouble for being out of the house, but he had to save the kitten... Do you think it occurred to him that someone else might come along and find her?... I hope I would be that brave, and not just hope someone else would do it."

"Wasn't it amazing how well the mom knew her kid? She knew not to believe the teenager about who really painted the car. I bet the teenager was surprised! I bet he got away with that stuff all the time with other little kids!"

And talk about white lies. Start a discussion about how you never know what to do when an adult has broccoli in their teeth. (My daughter was very intrigued with that one!) Ask what would he do. How about if it was a stranger? Or what if they'd just been onstage in front of a lot of people?

I'm not sure how subtle you need to be with this stuff; I started telling stories like this to my kid when she was much younger. At this point (ten years old) she has a very high personal integrity; the fact that she doesn't lie is a point of honor. And she's adept at the white lie, too; no one is more pleased than she when she opens a gift, no matter what it contains (unless the gift is from me, since she knows I need there to be truth between us).

Good luck!

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I love this answer except I do fully believe there is a natural consequence that occurs when some one lies and that is that the person being lied to can no longer trust the one doing the lying. There are a ton of natural consequences that can arise from this fact that exposing a child to will help teach them this important life lesson. I wish I could more than +1 you for everything else in this answer though. –  balanced mama Jan 10 at 15:26
    
I agree the proper natural consequence would be his dad not trusting him/checking everything he says, but that won't work unless he learns to value trust. And I think the "contest" was clouding this issue. Trust between people who love each other is a warm and wonderful thing; having it makes you stronger against all the things that go wrong in life. If he can come to see this, then not having his dad's trust would be worse than losing a cookie. Though I have to admit, I don't know if this might be harder because of the ADHD; but it can't hurt to try. –  Ossum's Mom Jan 10 at 17:06

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