Dear Kid Whisperer,
My son is seven and he lies whenever he can in order to get what he wants, to get his big brother in trouble, etc. I am kind of panicking because nothing works. We have tried grounding, yelling, etc. Any ideas? –Kelly, Springfield, Ohio
Perhaps more than any other behavior, lying can be tough to deal with because the strategies that most people use to try to extinguish the behavior are the very things that are encouraging the behavior. Punishing, yelling, and shaming make the behavior worse with a vast majority of kids. Here are two ways that I would deal with your son’s lies; one intervention and one consequence.
Kid: My brother is developing a deadly virus in the basement.
Kid Whisperer: Oh, man. When you lie to me, it makes me sad because it makes it hard for me to enjoy listening to the other things you say.
Kid: No, I swear. He is really smart and evil for a four year old. I’m not lying!
Kid Whisperer (Walking away): And what did I say?
Notice that I do not engage in the argument that will inevitably lead to another parade of lies.
Your son has been getting what he wants though dishonesty for a while now, so you will probably need to lean more heavily on consequences.
Kid: No, Mom told me to eat all the candy in the house in order to give me the requisite energy to do my homework.
Kid Whisperer: Oh, man. This is really unfortunate. Well, I am too sad to talk with you about the lie you just told. We will talk later. (Kid Whisperer walks away)
Kid: I should not be held responsible for my mother’s failure to understand the fundamentals of proper nutrition!!
Kid Whisperer: I am really saddened by you lying to me lately. Unfortunately, you are showing me with your actions that you cannot be trusted unless you are not around other people or I am in the room with you. You just don’t seem to be ready for these types of situations yet. It’s OK, you will just have to practice in situations where you can be more successful. Starting today, you will no longer be allowed to be around your brother unless I am in the room with you. Also, you will not be allowed to leave the house to play with your friends because I am worried you may do something dishonest that could cause a problem.
Kid: NOT FAIR!
Kid Whisperer: Could be. As soon as I notice that you can successfully avoid your brother and as soon as I notice that you are being honest, you can start having unsupervised time with your brother again. Then, as soon as I notice that you are being really honest while you are around your brother, you can start being around your friends again. You will keep being allowed to be around your friends as long as you continue to show me that you can be honest without me around.
Kid: How long is this going to take?
Kid Whisperer: That will depend on how long it takes you to become good at being honest. I love you and I know you can be honest because you are an awesome kid.
Pepper your son with noticings, not compliments, when he is being honest (which is any time he is not actively lying): “I’ve noticed you being honest!” or, “I’ve noticed that you haven’t lied once in over a week! How does that make you feel?” Don’t give any timelines for when he will reach the next tier of responsibility. Good luck!