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I'm looking for advice on how to determine which of my children is lying. I have 4 kids, 12, 12, 8, 6.

About once a week, something bad will happen, (this last incident, somebody poured a bowl of cereal with milk and left it on the table uneaten). When I ask who did that, all of them swear it wasn't them. I try to ask them individually (looking for signs of lying like staring away from me when answering) I get nowhere fast.

Unfortunately, they usually win and have found lying is effective since I'm not a truth detector.

What am I missing here?

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    I'm not sure why the blame matters so much. In my house I would say, "I don't care who did this, but whoever cleans it up gets whatever bonus" – Octopus Mar 29 '17 at 21:14
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    @Octopus I don't think blame is the issue here. I think lying is the issue. – WRX Mar 29 '17 at 21:41
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    I haven't watched it yet, but this seems relevant: ted.com/talks/kang_lee_can_you_really_tell_if_a_kid_is_lying – Shokhet Mar 29 '17 at 21:53
  • I would say it would be difficult for the youngest to lie convincingly. He could well try though. For the older ones, I have no advice. Kids from 8 or so can be brilliant at lying. – user1751825 Aug 10 '18 at 13:36
  • Perhaps a better approach may be to not try to determine who did it. Simply focus on the fact that someone wasted cereal, and this is not ok. There could be some relevant and proportionate consequence for everyone, grownups included. This way they will hopefully learn that deception achieves nothing, and can't be used as a way to avoid negative consequences for negative behaviour. – user1751825 Aug 10 '18 at 14:31
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You don't know and if you accuse your child and s/he is not the one that did it, that creates a trust problem.

Most kids do this at one point or another. You should tell the truth as a model. It is perfectly okay to say you are not going to tell them something due to their age or 'need to know'. Try not to tell lies in front of them. ("I told Mary I liked her dress, but she looked awful!")

I recommend putting it on them.

"Who did this?"

"None of us."

"Okay. Cereal and milk are expensive and we cannot waste perfectly good food, so we'll cut back on the (pick something they all like) so we will turn off the (TV) tonight and tomorrow until we pay back for the cereal."

The 'problem' with this sort of action is that everyone including parents, has to go without the item you remove (unless the kids have their 'own TV'). However, it works because it teaches that if they stand together, they are all punished and that waste is not okay with you. Your partner must be in agreement because if not, it will be confusing and counterproductive.

  • If an item is missing or broken (not accidentally unless it happens often) -- that's easy. Do not replace it.

  • Don't raise your voice and do explain why you are doing this. If the problem that brought you here is too late to fix, have a family meeting and tell everyone the new rule, but this is a good idea regardless.

  • Tell them tattling will not work -- the person who does the deed has to admit to it. Do not give extra punishment for finally coming forward with the truth. The truth is always accepted with thanks. Not praise -- but, "thank you for telling me the truth." An extra punishment makes telling the truth harder next time.

  • Explain that you have no wish to be angry but that it is not okay to waste food, steal, take another sibling's items and so on.

  • Explain that you are not a detective and that you have better things to do. Everyone will suffer the consequences unless the person admits to doing the deed. Do try to make the consequence fit the action.

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    What will, possibly, also come out of this is that if the others know who actually did it, it will be clear who is angry at whom over the group situation. You still want that person to come clean on their own, though. Nice explanation. – PoloHoleSet Mar 29 '17 at 21:42
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    +1 for "You should tell the truth as a model". Children learn best from the behavior you exhibit. Anything less is "Do as I say, not as I do". – Aaron Cicali Mar 29 '17 at 23:24
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    "Tell them tattling will not work -- the person who does the deed has to admit to it." I really like this emphasis. Not just honesty, but responsibility. – Rose Hartman Mar 30 '17 at 18:48
  • "Try not to tell lies in front of them." and you proceed suggesting to tell them that the family can't afford the electricity for TV on two evenings because of ruined bowl of cereal and milk... It's just punishment, don't hide it behind "until we pay back for the cereal". – Džuris Apr 3 '17 at 23:57
  • @Džuris in our family, we have strict budgets for food and utilities. This is so we can afford things that we cannot otherwise afford. Yes, one bowl of cereal might not mess the budget much, but waste in general certainly does. However, I do see your point. A box of cereal lasts my daughter about a week. I suppose it would be more honest to say that she cannot have cereal if she runs out. – WRX Apr 4 '17 at 13:43
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I don't think "who did it" matters overmuch. What matters is you have a bowl of cereal on the table. You need to determine why that's a problem for you - is it the waste, or is it the dirty dish not cleaned up?

If the waste is an issue, make it clear you're only buying two boxes of cereal per week, and they're welcome to eat them or waste them, but you're not buying more. Let them police it amongst themselves if one of them is consistently wasting cereal. Eventually they'll run out of cereal and be hungry, right? Lesson learned.

If the dirty dish not cleaned up is a problem, then again - let them police it. The dish needs to be cleaned up before anyone has screen time. You don't care who does it - but it needs to be done.

Now, since you have such a diversity in ages, it's possible you'll need to work with the six year old a bit to make sure they're not constantly relying on their siblings to clean up after them; though that's not a bad lesson for the older ones I imagine (they will need to learn how to gain his/her cooperation). But it doesn't necessarily put the six year old in a good situation, so you may want to work with them.

But not when it's unclear who's at fault; just make sure to pay attention to their dish-clearing or cereal-wasting habits directly, and if you don't see a bad pattern then it's not an issue - and if there is an issue, you'll see it if you're paying any attention at all, even if you don't see every instance.

All in all, the point is that looking to assign blame is not the point, and you shouldn't do it. Look to make sure your children individually know what they should be doing and usually do it, and make sure that they as a group take care of the problems that arise (messes, waste, etc.), and you'll be fine. Focusing on blame is what leads to the lying - don't put them in a situation where they feel like they need to lie, and they won't (and hopefully won't develop a pattern of doing so).

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    I disagree. While the issue of the bowl of cereal, itself, may not be major, when the parent went to ask who was responsible, so they could offer minor correction, someone lied. The LYING is the issue (maybe even moreso if they're willing to lie over something that inconsequential), and it matters, a lot. – PoloHoleSet Mar 29 '17 at 21:40
  • I think you make some really good points (+1). I agree with much of what you said but the question was, "How to figure out which of my children is lying to me?" I don't think it matters whether it is cereal or something major but lying needs to be discouraged in general so that when it comes to specifics, there's already a way to handle it and an established pattern of telling the truth. – WRX Mar 29 '17 at 21:40
  • They need to learn to not waste, not learn that they will eat less of it if they waste. Subtle yet important difference... Lying is another, bigger problem which shouldn't go unpunished, as @PoloHoleSet said. – Shautieh Mar 30 '17 at 5:42
  • I disagree strongly with your first sentence. You learn not to waste by learning what the consequences of waste are: which is having less available to you. As for lying; I think you should not put your children in a position where lying seems the better alternative. "Ask me no questions and I will tell you no lies." It's hardly surprising that a child lie when asked if he/she did something they shouldn't do. Instead of putting them in that position (where you set them up for failure), set them up for success by helping them learn the whys. – Joe Mar 30 '17 at 14:45
  • Joe, I admire your approach, but wonder how it works. I model telling the truth and I don't lie when I am asked if I did something. When my daughter lied, it wasn't so much because she was in fear of the punishment but because she felt foolish making the mistake. I had to learn to show her my own mistakes and sometimes even ask for help. Expecting a child to never lie and also not thinking that you might need to know -- is not reasonable. Sometimes stuff happens and we need to know how to deal with it. Also, the OP asked how to know who lied, not how to prevent it. – WRX Mar 30 '17 at 19:01
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Your question is quite complex and does not clearly indicate what you want to know. Of course there are now solutions that fit everything and what you do should be adjusted to what you are comfortably with and what your kids seem to respond best to.

First, if you are truly looking for "who did it" or "who is lying" you need to do some detective work. For example, if there is a broken or unattended dish, you can use the fingerprints. Step 1: get some kind of powder (contrasting color one works best) and dust it on the edges where someone would have touched it. Step 2: place scotch tape over the print, then peel and stick to blank paper (contrasting color like the bowl) Step 3: Compare to known fingerprints visually. If necessary, have them each touch something, like a glass of water to get the known prints using the same technique. Unfortunately, knowing and proving who did it is not always in your best interest. As they get older, they start to figure out new and better ways to get away with things like how to hide their fingerprints.

Second, you end with "what am I missing?" As some of the other answers rightly point out, "nailing the culprit" may not be the right answer. The optimal solution could be to create an environment where they feel safe answering truthfully. Since you already have teenagers, it would take a lot of effort on your part to change your behavior enough to get them to feel safe.

Another similar solution would be to help them get what they perceive to be significant benefit from telling the truth. This is also quite difficult.

The simplest answers are often the best. I would simply, start by asking if anyone knows who did it. And when they deny it, just accept the denial and face value. Perhaps make a "non accusative statement" about what the proper action should be. Then do the proper action myself. In the cereal bowl example, I might say something like "people should make sure they have time to to eat it before they make a bowl of cereal" or "i wish people would clear their bowls when they are done" then I would either eat it or throw it out.

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    This, imo, makes the OP into a detective.I much prefer any method that helps teach that lying is not a good plan. Coming up with ways to catch them or to punish seems to be a never ending way of going about it. – WRX Mar 29 '17 at 20:56
  • @Willow - I think the answerer doesn't think this is a big deal, and posted the answer in jest. – PoloHoleSet Mar 29 '17 at 21:43
  • @PoloHoleSet and you maybe correct -- but first post, who knows? If that is true, the post should be deleted. – WRX Mar 29 '17 at 21:47
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    @Willow - don't disagree, but the last sentence is pretty telling, to me. – PoloHoleSet Mar 29 '17 at 21:52
  • Why not put cameras everywhere? Motion sensors? Key cards to open the fridge? GPS collars to trek movements? Where do you draw the line? – WernerCD Mar 30 '17 at 4:14

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