When I was little, I had a phobia of lying. If my mom asked me if I was hungry at 2 pm and I said no, but I became hungry at 2.30, I worried that I had lied. I couldn’t lie, or even think about lying, without the guilt eating me alive.
This wasn’t always the case. It stemmed from a specific incident. When I was about six, my dad called me into the kitchen and asked me if I had eaten the brownies that were on the kitchen counter. I said “No,” lying my chocolate-covered face off. I had never seen my dad so disappointed in me. He didn’t care about the brownies, and he told me I wouldn’t have been in that much trouble if I had just admitted it, but the bold lie was a big deal. My dad had lost trust in me, and I took that hard.
Determined to earn back his trust, I was militant about the truth growing up. Even when I was 14 and had one sip of alcohol at a cast party that they would never have found out about, I told them the truth when they asked me if I had had anything to drink there. It worked. My word was gospel, and they never doubted me, no matter what. It felt good to have that trust and to know that my words carried so much integrity, even if it meant getting into trouble for one sip of alcohol.
There is no such integrity with my sons. Rugs lie less than my children. The four-year-old appears mostly to be allowing fantasy to be the truth, which is not uncommon at that age.
But my almost 10-year-old has no such excuse. He knows he is lying, and he is doing it to avoid consequences. And it worries me more than anything else he does. If he is this comfortable lying at 10, what will he be like as a teenager? What about when lying is about things more serious than sneaking games on the tablet?
We’ve given consequences. We have given the same talk my dad gave to me about lying being more serious than the initial offense, and about earning back trust. We enlisted the help of my father, the master of this speech, to give it to him first hand. It didn’t make a difference. Even when he knew we were onto him the lies still came.
One day, after catching him in his most serious lie to date, I asked him why he does it. What motivates him to lie, when he clearly understands that it is wrong? His answer floored me.
“I’m worried you will stop liking me when I do things that would get me in trouble.”
A stab, right to the heart. How could he ever think we would stop liking him? We have always told both kids, and reiterated over and over, that no matter what, no matter how angry we were, no matter what they did, we always love them. Always.
But he wasn’t worried we would stop loving him. He confirmed he knew that to be true, that we love him no matter what. He was worried we would stop liking him, and that was different than loving him. He worried we would stop doing things like letting him choose his favourite dinners, and generally being nice to him. That if we didn’t like something he did, we would hold it against him forever, and so he risked further consequence by trying to conceal his acts.
Of course, it isn’t true. I don’t know how he even came to that conclusion, but children’s logic rarely travels in a straight line. It suddenly made this seemingly inexplicable tendency to lie more understandable.
We reassured him that when he gets in trouble, there are consequences, but they are self-limiting. If he does something, he has a consequence, and once it’s done, things go back to normal. We never stop liking him, even during the consequence. We could see relief flood his face when we said this like he had been holding this fear in for so long.
We also discussed how, unlike consequences that have a set end, the effects of lying last beyond the act or consequence. It’s so easy to lose trust, and so hard to earn it back. So even if the next time we ask him if he did something and he truthfully says no, we will doubt his answer if he has a history of lying to us. If he is worried about lasting effects, it’s the lying that does the damage, not the misbehaviour.
It finally seems to have resonated. He was in the most trouble he had ever been in his entire life so far, but he was more relaxed than I have seen him in ages. He’d been carrying this guilt and worry and weight for so long, and we hadn’t seen it. Laying down the burden was an immense relief. He still faced consequences for his actions, but he didn’t argue or fight them like usual. He accepted them as a direct result of his choices and took comfort in knowing that when they were done, they were done, with no loss of our admiration.
It’s hard being a kid. Things that seem to logical and inconsequential to us can feel earth changing to them. That he would ever even consider that I could stop liking him, or treat him differently because of something he did, despite never having done so, was heart-breaking and eye-opening for me.
He learned something about lying and consequences, but I learned something too. Sometimes we are too quick to jump to the lecture and the punishment. We need to spend more time asking our children not just what they did but why. Sometimes, they are just waiting to be asked so they can lay that burden down.