NORMAN — Q: We are very concerned about our 8-year-old grandson’s lying. He always pleads innocence and wonders plaintively why no one ever believes him.
When someone confronts him with some misdeed they saw him do (for example, poking holes in the back door screen), he merely shrugs his shoulders and grins. His parents have punished him repeatedly by taking away screen privileges, but to no avail.
They’ve also told him the story of the boy who cried wolf. This has been going on since he was a small child. We are all concerned.
A: Lying is one of the most difficult of problems to solve. It quickly becomes a habit and turns into a major parent-child power struggle, both of which are obviously the case here.
We psychologists are trained to think that habitual lying is an expression of deep-seated dysfunction in the family, but I have not found that to be always, or even usually, the case. Sometimes the answer to “why?” is obvious; sometimes, it seems as if the problem developed quite “by accident.”
What’s looming down the road is anyone’s best guess. Sometimes, a child who is a habitual liar “outgrows” the problem during his teen or early adult years. Sometimes, the problem persists well into adulthood and becomes a significant handicap to any chance the individual may have at success in life.
The further problem is that the habitual liar often seems impervious to punishment.
The secondary reward of playing cat-and-mouse overrides the impact of any negative consequence. Let’s face it, during the game of cat-and-mouse, the child is in complete control of the family. That’s a powerful tonic.
I’ll wager that in response to his lying, this boy’s parents have taken privileges away for a day, maybe a week. If so, that’s not going to cut it. Serious problems require serious consequences. You can’t stop a charging elephant with a flyswatter. With that in mind, I have some recommendations that I’ve seen work with other child prevaricators.