When children lie or steal, it isn't because they are liars or thieves in the moral sense of the word. In fact, to most children, lying or stealing isn't a moral issue at all, it's a functional matter: they are doing it for a reason. For most children, lying or stealing are practical matters. Some basic rules apply.
1. Never accuse a child
2. Never question the child
Never question the child about the inappropriate behavior, whether you know the child is at fault or whether you aren't sure. Interestingly, children often lie about their behavior because they have learned that their parents can't handle an honest answer. So what's the safest route for the child to take? To lie. The practical value of this approach is far safer, from the child's perspective, than is being morally honest.
3. Do not overreact
When a child lies or steals, do not hit the ceiling, come unglued, or become verbally explosive. The child got an immense amount of parental attention for behaving inappropriately. Behaviors that get attention are behaviors that are strengthened. Overreacting gives a massive amount of reinforcement to the behavior the parent wanted eliminated.
In contrast, here are five things you should do:
1. Respond proactively.
2. Make known your expectations.
3. Implement consequences.
4. Acknowledge appropriate behavior.
5. Model appropriate behavior.
1. Respond proactively
A proactive response is a controlled, mature, constructive, empathic, understanding, and directive response. No one has reason to get mad or to be defensive. The child learns of the parent's disappointment and that better behavior is expected in the future. The child also learns that more attention, hence, more value, was placed on honesty than on lying. The concern is with the child and not with what the child did.
2. Make your expectations known
Rather than arguing with the child about what's right and what's wrong, clearly state what you expect of the child. The child learns, in an atmosphere that is completely under the gentle, mature, control of an adult, what is expected of him. Appropriate adult behavior is modeled. The parent's point is driven home gently in a role-playing situation, which removes any doubt from the child's mind about what is expected of him. The child is involved as a member of the problem-solving team. And finally, everything is positive. The parent uses lots of praise statements. Rather than using the word lying, the parent uses the word honesty and focuses on the positive aspects of the lesson.
3. Implement Consequences
In instances where children continue behaving inappropriately, it may be necessary to implement consequences. When treating lying and stealing, focus on honesty. Consequences, when reasonable and well implemented, deliver the message better than tens of thousands of words. They put the responsibility for the child's behavior squarely where it ought to be: on the child.
4. Acknowledge appropriate behavior
Whenever the child responds appropriately, warmly acknowledge this. Don't assume that being "good" is its own reward. To the child, being good may not be a rewarding or reinforcing experience. Sometimes, for example, being good means facing the music, and that can even be unpleasant. So when a child behaves appropriately, that should be acknowledged in a very positive reinforcing way. Once the child realizes that favorable, controlled parental attention and positive consequences come with being honest/trustworthy, that's the behavior that will most likely be forthcoming.
5. Model appropriate behavior
Parents who fudge on their taxes, fib, tell half-truths and "white lies," are modeling the very behaviors they deplore in their children! These are behaviors that are learned.
6. Teach appropriate behavior
Use lying and stealing as opportunities to teach children what is meant by property rights, what is meant by "yours and mine," and why it is in one's best interest to be trustworthy. Rather than teaching a child to behave well only to escape the negative consequences for behaving badly, teach the child that there are positive consequences for behaving well.
Arthur H. Belmont, LMFT
has over 20 years of experience working with children, teens and adults who are struggling with relational, emotional or behavioral issues.