Look for the Lie’s Intention Rather than its Crime

Q. My almost 7 year old has started a habit of telling lies. We have talked about this several times. I have confronted him when he has told lies. He seems to understand. The hard part is that his Dad tells “white lies” and if he is confronted about things will find a way to put the fault on someone or something else. I have not confronted his Dad about this as he is an adult. It was not an issue when my son was small but now he knows when a lie is a lie. So what to do when he sees his Dad tell lies, and I confront my son about lying? I personally don’t lie.

A. Just because your husband is an adult is no reason not to talk about this with him. You do not have to blame or confront. Simply point out to him what you experience and tell him that you are concerned that his example may be giving your son the wrong message. I suggest starting off with something like, “I know we both want our son to be honest and upfront. Neither of us want him to lie or to be afraid to tell the truth for whatever reason. My concern is that when he hears something like…(an example of one of his white lies), he will interpret that with his 7 yr. old brain and think this is what he should do.”

If you blame your husband for lying, he will surely get defensive and not take ownership. Unless he is very passive-aggressive or lacks empathy, you should be able to talk about it if you approach it from the point of view that you know your husband intends only the best and may not be aware of what you see.

I do believe you can correct this for your son if you have the right perspective of what he is doing. First and foremost, take the word “lie” out of your vocabulary. If you see what he is saying or doing as a lie, you will feel upset and worried which will lead you to react in a way that is ineffective and blaming. If you see that he is trying to protect himself from something, you will feel more compassion and understanding for his experience. That is where you must be—in his reality of the situation, not yours.

Children lie for 3 reasons. He is because he is protecting himself from getting in trouble, he is preventing you from being disappointed in him, or he’s afraid he won’t get what he wants. None of these reasons are worthy of punishment and blame. Protecting himself from getting in trouble is the most common. But when there is no “trouble” to get into, he has no reason not to be honest with you. 

But ignoring it is not the answer either.

When you know he is not telling you the truth, try something like, “I’m not sure that is what really happened. Can you think about it again and tell me what you want to say?” Do not say anything like, “We don’t lie. It’s not right to lie. Don’t lie to me.” Never use the word “lie”. When you accuse him of lying, he is blamed and immediately gets defensive and probably more secretive with his motives. Then he comes to see himself as a liar and does it more. That is the last thing you want. But often typical reactions to lying do exactly that. You might add, “I wonder if you are telling me that because you’re afraid I will get mad at you/take something away/be disappointed in you (whatever seems appropriate).”

Also tell him that you know he wants to be honest with you but for some reason he thinks he can’t. Don’t ask him why. He probably doesn’t know and you don’t want to put him on the spot—he’ll get defensive. Always let him know that you will be ready to hear what he has to say whenever he is ready to tell you. Also let him know that, hard as it may be sometimes, you always feel better inside when you tell someone the truth or are willing to own up to what really happened. Give him an example if you can. You must make his bridge to being honest the path of least resistance. In other words, he must not fear any repercussion.

If he says, “But Dad lies,” simply say that Dad shouldn’t do that. Perhaps you can all make a pack that if you don’t think someone is telling the truth, you can ask or use a code word to mean ‘I don’t believe that’.

Ask yourself, “Why is it that he can’t tell me the truth? What is he afraid of?” Keep your focus on the fact that he wants to be honest. Mirror his honesty. Acknowledge honesty when you see it. Don’t reward him for telling the truth. Let his reward be how good it feels when he risks honesty. It may take some time to get here. Be patient.