Thursday, May 16, 2013
When Children Lie, Evade, Misrepresent,or Exercise Tact: What's Going On With This "Little Liar"?
Nobody really likes a liar. When an adult lies to us we often have a variety of unpleasant feelings and thoughts: He must think I’m a complete fool! She’s just trying to get her own way dishonestly! They must be crazy to think anybody would believe that story! Or, more forgivingly, we think: This poor soul is completely mistaken! I should treat him very cautiously, as he must be mentally ill to believe what he’s just said!
On the other hand, we appreciate and approve some forms of lying. A neighbor asks another neighbor how she likes her quite hideous hat, and the second neighbor replies that it’s “interesting” or “really different”. We, who are glad we didn’t get asked this difficult question, may admire the evasive response, which is actually a lie: that hat isn’t interesting, it’s just horrible!
Successful lying requires quite a bit of cognitive skill. The good liar has to think about what the recipient of the lie knows or could know, about how likely the lying statement is to actually be true, and about how people act when telling the truth. He or she also has to be prepared for follow-up questions and be able to answer with verisimilitude. No wonder children are not very good at lying!
When children lie, we are relieved when they are [infrequently] just being tactful. But if it’s not tact, we have the same unpleasant feelings we’d have about an adult, and some extra ones too. In complicated ways, we are deeply disturbed by child lies. We think that children should trust us and be not just candid but transparent in their thoughts when we want to know something about them. When they tell us lies, we think that they don’t trust us, or that in some way they are “not really children”-- not the innocent creatures of our fantasies. Some of us begin to think that if a child lies, there are terrible things in store-- not just lying, but stealing and violence and of course sexual behavior. As a result, people sometimes freak out when they detect a child’s lie.
Here’s an example, sent to me by an acquaintance who is part of a Facebook group that focuses on Reactive Attachment Disorder. The example appears from context to involve an adopted or foster child:
“So the lying in our house is reaching new heights. The last couple weeks have been very interesting. I started using the suggested phrase, ‘You can do X (what we want her to do) or you can choose Y (the consequences of not doing it)’. On Monday she lied to me again and got caught thus she had to walk home from school. I was within 100 yards at all times but she did not know that. We live about 1 km from her school and she was home within 15 minutes. She was scared poopless!! Both yesterday and today, she tried to lie to me but I could see it all over her face and I pushed until I got the truth. It took about 46 mins yesterday and 30 mins plus missed swimming today. She is more afraid of the trouble she will get for doing something wrong than she is of the consequences of lying. Clearly we need to step up the lying consequences!! Tonight’s conclusion got me tho. Remember she is just turning 6. Her response tonight as to why she did what she did was, “Because I wanted to and you weren’t there.” In other words, I did what I wanted regardless of what I knew I should do simply because my mom was not watching me for 2 mins. The action was beyond juvenile and reminded me of when I couldn’t leave a toddler unattended for more than 30 seconds.”
There are so many issues in this statement that I hardly know where to begin. First, when I initially skimmed this, I assumed up until almost the end that the child was 12 or 13. Instead, she is going on six, an age at which most actions are “juvenile” by definition and at which many children have the cognitive breakthroughs to Theory of Mind that let them know how other people can be confused or distracted by what is said to them-- i.e., how to lie. It’s also an age when children have begun to discriminate between what they want and what their parents want, and to think they should get their own way sometimes. John Bowlby, the developer of attachment theory (not therapy) spoke of this period of family relationships as ideally working toward “goal-corrected partnerships”, in which parent and child negotiate or modify what they each want because they also want to maintain their relationship. It is clear that the mother of the “little liar” was not about to enter into a goal-corrected partnership, however, and my guess is that she believes that her child must submit completely to parental authority in order to “become attached” and develop normally.
Let’s look at some other problems here. Presumably it was safe for “little liar” to walk a short distance home by herself. It might actually be a good thing for her to develop self-reliance by doing this regularly. But mother has framed this as a “consequence” (read: punishment) and therefore something to be disliked. The child is “scared poopless” as the mother announces dramatically with a couple of exclamation marks that would appear to indicate her own gratification at this. Why is the child so scared, other than the fact that she has been told walking home alone is a bad thing being done to her because she was bad? The obvious answer is that this “consequence” is essentially a threat of abandonment, and thus has terrible implications for an adopted or foster child, who has already experienced at least one abandonment. Mother has chosen something she can envision as a harmless punishment, but it is one that resonates with the child’s deepest concerns and needs-- and mother appears to congratulate herself on having found a perfectly legal way to wreak serious pain.
When people rely on punishment to manage children’s behavior-- and let’s not beat around the bush, “consequence” means punishment-- they (the parents) often paint themselves into a corner. If they find that punishment doesn’t do the job, they can only think of one alternative: to escalate the punishment. The “little liar’s” mother says so. If the child is more afraid of being caught doing something wrong than of the consequences of lying-- voila, the answer is to step up the consequences of lying. (She would certainly not want to step down whatever punishment the child is so afraid of, would she?) Whatever punishment people use, and however effective it may be at times, the problem arises when it does not work, or the results are not as quick and complete as desired. Very few parents who are believers in punishment can think of any answer other than intensifying the ineffective punishment. Like “little liar’s” mother, they seek a level of punishment that will be truly distressing to the child, and regrettably may be satisfied by seeing that the child is miserable (“scared poopless!!”) rather than evaluating whether the desired behavior change was brought about by the parental action.
One other thing, before I yield to the temptation to become sarcastic here—what about the mother’s interpretation of the child’s statement that she wanted to do something and “you weren’t here”? Mother has read this to mean that “you must always spend all your time watching me and never have a relaxed moment.” I would suggest reframing this as meaning something like “I want to control what I do, but when there’s no caring adult here I just can’t manage it yet”. Readers who have been teachers may remember Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development”-- when a child is beginning to master a skill but hasn’t yet got it under control, he or she may be able to do it when an interested, familiar adult is nearby to give support, but not when alone. We often think about this as applying to tying shoes or doing simple arithmetic.but it applies to “behaving well” too.
It seems that “little liar” has told her mother “I need you!” by her fear when walking alone and by her statement that she cannot behave as asked without plenty of support. The mother does not seem to have heard these messages. Instead, she has framed the relationship as a fight to the finish between the child and herself. Unfortunately, whatever the outcome in such a fight, it is the child who loses.
Guiding children to understand rules about lying is an important parental job. But, it can’t be done with the approach used by “little liar’s” mother.