What Do You Do When Your Child Is Lying?
At some point (okay, at many points) as a parent, you’ll catch your child in a lie. The fact that your kid is lying is unlikely to be noteworthy, but what you do next matters. It can either make the situation much better—or much worse.
Joe Newman was a so-called “problematic” child who went on to develop a method for working with parents and children that looks beyond the lie or “bad” behavior itself. The goal is to bring everyone toward mutual understanding. When parents can recognize and set boundaries without judgment, children become more likely to see their parents as people they can trust with the truth, Newman says. And vice versa.
In his book, Raising Lions, Newman outlines this relatively straightforward approach that involves shifting perspectives for both parents and children. Although not necessarily easy, the idea is as simple as it is effective: When we give children space and allow them to draw their own conclusions, we’re also affirming their emotional intelligence. Newman, who spoke about this on The goop Podcast, says it’s these life lessons that kids need to become well-adjusted humans outside of our homes.
A Q&A with Joe Newman
Children likely have their first experience with truth through stories we read them. When we read them stories about bears that talk or haunted underwear, they know this isn’t true. A child’s initial experience of “not true” is typically paired with joy, creativity, and humor. So for all the detrimental things that come from lying, it will always also be associated with creativity and fun. Santa Claus is a lie, but it’s fun!
Children lie to hide an intention or action they don’t feel safe disclosing. They’ll tell the truth when they feel like it’s safe to say it to you. This has to be developed through a history of them feeling like their autonomous self isn’t judged by you. So the question really is how do you get them to view you as someone they can be honest with?
The other reasons children lie are to assert their independence and feeling of autonomy and because it works to get what they want or avoid what they don’t want.
The Raising Lions Method does two things: First, it creates a structure where parents can assert their needs and make it ineffective for children to ignore or negate those needs. Second, it fills that structure with a relationship that recognizes the child’s autonomy, ability, and choices.
Here are the key action points: Take the charge out and remove the accusation. Give an effective consequence based on your belief, not on the immorality of their action. Don’t force the child to cop to the lie.
For example, perhaps you know they went on the computer when you said not to and they are still denying it. Here’s what happens:
You say, “Tonight, you won’t be having your TV time. I know you said you didn’t go on the computer, and maybe you didn’t, but my belief is that you did. So for tonight there won’t be any TV.”
Your kid says, “But that’s not fair! I didn’t do anything wrong!”
And you say, “I hear you, but I need to do things based on what I believe. I’m not mad at you, but tonight you can’t have your TV time.”
The language and follow-through in this scenario are what’s key. To begin, you’re not trying to instigate an emotional experience (shame) for your child by telling them lying is wrong or asking them how it might make you feel that you can’t trust them. All of this actually works counter to creating the space for trust. Instead, you are following through with a consequence that puts them in charge of coming to their own conclusions about what does and does not work for them.
Teenagers want, above all else, to assert their independence from you. They want to assert their autonomy.
I recommend that parents start by doing the opposite of the thing that doesn’t work—moralizing. Instead of telling them what they’ve done is bad, immoral, or offensive or that you no longer trust them, try taking the emotional charge out of it with a statement like, “The truth is that it’s natural for teens to lie to their parents. It would be weird if you didn’t lie to us sometimes, so I don’t take it personally and I don’t think you’re a bad person because you lie to me sometimes.” Not surprisingly, I call this language the opposite of moralizing.
You can go further along these lines, but you should reflect on how you can do “the opposite of moralizing” in a way that’s true and authentic for you. For one parent, this might be saying, “You know, initially when I realized you probably weren’t telling me the truth, I was offended and I took it very personally. But I thought back and realized I also lied to my parents at your age. I wanted the privacy it gave me. I realized this is natural for kids to do, so I don’t hold it against you.”
Now you can set a consequence or enforce a boundary, an effect for making the choice to lie. Then recognize their autonomy again: “Look, I know I can’t control your decisions. Ultimately, you’re going to be the one who makes the choices about this, but I’m going to set these boundaries based on what I need.”
The answer to this question will differ from family to family because each has its own personal needs and wants. Some don’t want their children using any alcohol or pot. Some will feel like a little of this is fine. I like to respect the different values of each family and help them get what they need from their children. Relationships are transactional: “In order for you to get from me the things you want, I need to get from you the things I want.” Parents should learn to honor what they need or else they will never be happy parents. And if children don’t learn to honor the needs and wants of their family, how will they learn it in the world?
Your child might be justifying their decision based on defending how it’s right or wrong, but it’s not about right and wrong; it’s about what you need. Don’t judge your child’s choices as right or wrong and don’t let them judge yours.
Parents used to set boundaries paired with judgment. Because of the pain that inflicted, a lot of us threw away both. My method keeps the boundaries and throws away the judgment. Here’s an example: “You might think it was reasonable for you to come home two hours late. But when you come home two hours late, you’re going to lose your phone for twenty-four hours.”
Let’s think about what kind of children we want to raise: children who are motivated by fear, children who are motivated by a desire for approval, children who are motivated by a desire to provoke? Or children who can make independent ethical decisions for themselves—self-motivated children. If you can see that your children are not motivated by your approval or disapproval, then moralizing is ineffective.
It’s important to set firm boundaries with children, boundaries that motivate the choices you want to see. But just because a boundary or consequence is firm doesn’t mean it’s effective. To be effective, it needs to recognize the child’s autonomy and ability.
The first step is setting predictable boundaries without judgment, and don’t name behaviors they can identify themselves. Parents tend to do too much talking and explaining about behaviors children already understand. When we expect and allow children to identify and solve the problems that they can, we create the space for them to become responsible, proactive thinkers.
Gradually these children learn they can trust that you aren’t judging them. Then you can ask them questions about what motivated their choices: “I can see you wish you hadn’t been mean to your friend in front of those other boys. There’s usually a good reason for your choice when you do something like that, even if you regret it later. Why do you think you made that choice?” If your son or daughter isn’t open to the discussion, trust them to think about it themselves. Then perhaps, “These are the things young people deal with to figure out how to be a person who is happy with themselves. You’ll figure it out.” In this way, children learn to understand themselves, deal squarely with their urges, rid themselves of shame, and make more balanced, compassionate choices in the future.
I have pretty direct experience with this one that involves me and my stepdaughter, when she was a teen. When I first moved into the house, she was one of those kids who lied all the time, was smart but disorganized, and who was constantly running rings around her mother, tutor, and teachers to save face. I handled her academic failures and dishonesty in the same way that I modeled above: I took the charge out and set clear, predictable boundaries. When I first caught her lying, I told her I admired the creativity and effort she’d put into it. Then I told her she was grounded. Her grades turned around, and she ended up with a high school transcript that was full of A’s and B’s rather than D’s and F’s.
More important to me than the grades was the relationship that we developed because of my commitment to never to pair consequences with shame. I saw the fruits of this work when my stepdaughter came home one day, sat down on the couch, and asked me point-blank: “Should I cheat on my trigonometry midterm?” I asked her for more details. She explained that she was struggling in the class, that she felt ill-prepared. She had hopes of attending a really good school and was scared that her mediocre math performance might hurt her chances. Her friend had gotten an answer key with all the answers, and she was considering making a copy for herself. Should she do it?
For a parent, this is a dream moment. You have earned enough trust and respect to be confided in and sought out for guidance. But I didn’t take the opportunity to lecture. I asked her a series of questions. If you cheat on this test, will you remember that you cheated in five years? How about if you fail? Will you remember that or just forget it? If you cheat on this test, will you be farther behind when you take the next one? There is always a possibility that you will get caught; is it worth it to you to risk your reputation with your teacher and the school? Ultimately, she decided that cheating was not for her, but not because I had told her she had to feel that way. She decided not to cheat because I’d helped her work the issue out for herself, with autonomy.
My approach doesn’t generally involve teaching truth to children; I prefer teaching them how to find truth. I’m also not interested in raising children who parrot back phrases that please the adults around them, even if these are my phrases. I teach kids ethics through questions about their beliefs and perceptions using Socratic dialogue.
I used to run a program for kids ages seven to twelve that was facilitated by a group of adult volunteers. When I was training these volunteers on how to run the discussion portion of the day, I gave them one hard rule: You may only speak in questions.
The adult might start by saying, “I want to read you something and I’d like your opinion about what you think the author means.” Then after the passage, “The author says that lying isn’t always bad. Do you think he’s right?” Then, “Why do you think that?” and “Who disagrees?” “Why?” “Can you give me an example?” “If what you say is true, wouldn’t this _____ also be true?” “So let me see if I understand you. Are you saying…?” Sometimes a child would say something that got a big reaction of disapproval from the rest of the group, and I would defend their right to an independent opinion: “Hold on, let’s hear why she believes that. Can you tell us more?”
In this way, I was identifying and respecting the children’s autonomy, their independent perceptions and ideas. First I created the safe place for the expression of their independent perceptions. Then I was asking them to explain these ideas, unpack them, examine them, compare them to other ideas, and clear up the contradictions that appeared. People who saw this group were amazed at how these children enthusiastically participated in an ethical, even philosophical, discussion. They opened up, said what they really thought, came to new realizations, and often changed their minds about things.
As a child, Joe Newman, MAOM, was defiant, difficult to control, physically aggressive and unable to sit still. He developed the Raising Lions Method to engage other children deemed too difficult to control. Today he trains and consults parents, teachers, and school administrators to raise and teach healthy, respectful children. He lives in Santa Monica, California.