Q. My 9 yo son recently stole some money, told me he didn’t, and that his friends must have. Then he planted the money in his sister’s room to frame her before telling me to, “search my room”. I’ve no idea what to say or do. I asked him repeatedly. I left a pot out for the money to be put back anonymously, and then he hides it in his sister’s room.
A. This is a tough situation for all of you. I’m sure there are deeper issues besides the coverup of the money that have led to this situation and need to be addressed. I suspect that underneath the behavior (lying), which is always a signal to a deeper need, there are trust issues. Namely that your son doesn’t trust you because he has learned that you don’t trust him, and therefore he is doing what he can to get away with what he wants. Nothing wrong with a child trying to get what he wants. But when he becomes devious to do it, then there is a problem. The deviousness comes out of a fear that he can’t get what he wants otherwise. There is not trust.
I am not trusted, I’m not okay is often the message children get when their parents use critical and judgmental tones when the children resist doing what they are told. This is another reason why giving consequences and rewards to children teaches the opposite of what you expect, especially if your child is an Integrity child rather than a Harmony child.
It is important to understand that your son actually does want to be successful but that something is in his way—an obstacle to doing what you want. That obstacle can be many things. In this case, the obstacle is likely his growing belief that he is untrustworthy, unaccepted, and misunderstood. When he believes that about himself, he has to get sneaky to get what he wants and may feel the desire to hurt someone else (his sister) in order to buoy himself.
Your goal here is to get across to your son that you know what a tough position he got himself into and how hard it must have been to think he had to cover up for himself and put his sister in jeopardy as well. Tell him also that you can only imagine the tension he felt when he got in too deep to come clean. You want to let him know that you understand that he knew it was not right but that he didn’t want to lose face, so he felt he had to make up an answer to cover his tracks. No questions about why he did what he did. Statements do not have to be answered which makes it easier to listen.
When children know they have done wrong, they of course want to cover up the wrongdoing. But when we blame them for the wrong, they get defensive and try to protect themselves from getting in trouble. It’s what we all do. When we lay blame, whoever is blamed gets defensive in some way. Children cannot learn when they are busy defending and protecting themselves. They do not experience the natural consequences of their behavior when they are focused on themselves and trying to get away with it. All they care about in that moment is not getting in trouble.
It’s important that you send the message that you know he always wants to do the right thing and sometimes he makes mistakes. When you trust him to do the right thing, he is way more likely to uphold that trust than when he believes you don’t trust him.
Then let him know you want to understand why he felt compelled to take the money. When you give him your trust—in who he is—rather than focus on his unacceptable behavior, he will most likely talk to you about the initial situation to relieve his stress over it. Problem solve with him about different ways he could get what he wanted, i.e. talking to you about the money he wanted and why. You can then work with him on how to earn that money on his own. It may or may not be worthwhile to bring his sister into the conversation so she can let him know how she felt being set up as the one who took the money.
If distrustful behavior has been his go-to, has worked enough times, and has become a long-time habit due to consistent blame, he has built up a strong wall of defense. Breaking it down will take time and consistency of your belief in him before he feels safe enough to tell you the truth.
Children lie for three main reasons:
- To avoid getting in trouble
- To avoid disappointing a parent or important person
- To feel better about their life situation (i.e. making up story about themselves)
They do not lie because they are liars. A lie is a protection. When you understand that, you will understand that a lie is the signal of a child who feels bad, hurt, unimportant, incapable, etc. This child is having a problem, not being a problem. When your focus remains on the lie and not the emotional cause of the lie, you are actually setting up your child for further untrustworthy behavior.
Take the word lie out of your vocabulary. Speak of telling or not telling the truth. You might say, “I’m having a hard time believing that what you are telling me is the truth. I’m going to give it a bit of time and then you can tell me again. Sometimes it’s hard to say what the truth is but you will always feel better when you do.” Do not ever label your child a liar. Always keep at the forefront of your mind that he wants and needs to be successful and to please you.