Raising an Honest Child
Liar, Liar—Nature, Nurture
The day I decided to divorce my ex-husband was the day I caught him telling our then four-year-old son Devon that if you are going to lie, to make sure you stick to that lie, no matter what. “Did I hear correctly? Did you really just say that to him? Are you f***ing crazy?”
The words came pouring out of my mouth and in less than an instant I scooped up that child quicker than a pelican swooping out of the sky to snatch up a tasty meal of ocean fish, stunned and in complete surprise. My then-husband looked at me wide-eyed like a deer caught in the headlights, got up and began running after us just as my son and I fled the scene.
This was actually the final straw in a series of events that would bring down a marriage doomed to fail before it even began. My husband is, was and will always be a liar. He doesn’t just lie about something to protect himself. It’s like a game; he’d lie about what he had for lunch that day to see if he could get away with it. He's the dictionary definition of a pathological liar. Once he told the lie, he seemed to believe it and when he was caught in a lie, he would become defensive and somehow wiggle his way out of it. One time when I questioned him about a woman’s phone number I found in his pants pockets (not the first phone number I found), he claimed I must have planted it to deflect attention from myself, the real person who was having an affair—in his deluded mind anyway. I knew he was a liar, but I thought I could change him. The pattern of behavior however was already ingrained, having been reinforced for over 20 years, it became a battle I could not win and quickly tired of fighting. The foundation that should have been built on solid trust, was instead built on shaky lies that ultimately gave way and came crashing down around us all.
Two years following my ugly divorce, I met and then married a wonderful, honest man who has been the incredible and unlikely father figure my son so sorely needed (not to mention the partner of my dreams). I watched Devon grow and, as if the behavior was biologically based, he began to lie a lot, mostly for self-protection. My husband and I were challenged to teach him early on how to be honest about his actions and accept the responsibility for the resulting consequences. No easy feat, but successfully accomplished.
We told him if he lied about something and we found out, the consequences would be much more severe than if he had told us outright. We told him that in most cases, if he came to us first and was straight and true about what he said, the consequences would be far less severe—and then we did just that. In some cases, Devon told us about very minor infractions, such as calling someone a name at school. For these actions, the most appropriate discipline was a discussion around the dinner table about people’s feelings, a perfect opening for conversation. It took time, consistency and follow through, but Devon soon learned that he could openly discuss problems without the fear of inappropriate punishments.
The result has been remarkable. As united parents, we killed two birds with one stone. Devon has grown up to be an honest adult. He’s aware of his actions, accepting of consequences (for the most part, he’s still only 20-years-old!) and he is confident that he can tell us anything without us overreacting or flying off the handle wielding weapons of mass destruction (i.e. threats to shut off his internet).
Just because a child lies does not by any stretch of the imagination mean that they are pathological liars. Kids lie for many reasons, to get something they want, to avoid punishment and because they wish things were like in their lies. Many things about Devon’s father have been passed on to him, that’s biology and I can’t fight it. However, nature or not, a conscious decision was made to raise an honest child and nurture that liar right out of him. Here’s how you can too.
- Lead by example. By living an honest life, your child will model your behavior and learn that honesty is valued. By kindergarten, your child has already developed an understanding of the concepts of truth and falsehood.
- Praise them for telling the truth. It’s easy to overlook, but positive reinforcement goes a long way — especially early on in the unwanted behavior.
- Avoid labels and tell your child you don’t like lies and that if they continue to lie to you, you won’t be able to believe what they tell you (a great opportunity to check out “A Boy Who Cried Wolf” from your local library). By calling a child a liar, their knee-jerk response will be defensive. Over time, a child may begin to believe in those labels.
- Acknowledge their feelings and ask them why they lied. Opening up a dialogue by recognizing the feeling that motivated the lying, without placing blame will give your child a safe place to talk about those feelings.
- Keep a cool head. Most ineffective punishments come out of anger. If you are able to remain calm, you will often be able to come up with more productive solutions.
How to Identify a Pathological Liar
- They exaggerate everything and lie about the smallest things, even when it’s easy to tell the truth.
- They change their story all the time.
- They are one-uppers. Whatever you do, they can do it better.
- They create their own realities. They don't value the truth, but see their lies as not hurting anyone. They act very defensively when questioned or challenged.
- They often do not value loyalty. Their loyalty is fleeting, and because they are insecure, they will find solace in confiding to whomever is in their favor at the moment.
- They lie to get sympathy or to look better.
- They are repeatedly getting caught in lies. They contradict what they say which will become very clear over time. It is not possible to keep track of so many lies even if they believe them to be true.
- They never own up to the lie, no matter what.
- Learn how to become a human lie detector
The following techniques to telling if someone is lying. Warning: Sometimes Ignorance is bliss; after gaining this knowledge, you may be hurt when it is obvious that someone is lying to you.
- Liars' Brains Wired Differently
A USC study of pathological liars shows first evidence of structural differences in the area of the brain that enables most people to feel remorse.
More by this Author
I remember driving through Taos, New Mexico with my husband noticing an unusual cluster of homes—a colony of small mounds, with windows peering west—their eyes wide open, built right into the side of the...