Lessons Taught And Lessons Learned

Lessons being taught are not always the same as the lessons being learned.

Sometimes, a parent’s strategy for discouraging lies ends up having the opposite affect from the one intended. Instead of encouraging truthfulness, they inadvertently promote the practice of lying.

A procedure that motivates children to become better liars involves giving them plenty of opportunity to practice. It goes like this. First, catch them doing something wrong, but don’t tell them you know they did it, that you have indisputable evidence of the wrongful act. Then invite them to lie. Give them plenty of opportunity to back themselves into a corner before you confront them with your evidence.

Some well-intended parents use this strategy to catch their child in a lie. Perhaps they believe catching the child in the act of lying is a chance to prove the child is a liar, a way to demonstrate how lying doesn’t work, a way to prove that the child is no match for the parent and will not get away with lying.

Unfortunately, the child knows lying does work sometimes, and the parent has only provided the child with an opportunity to practice and get better at the skill of lying.

It can be confusing for parents because, a variation of this same procedure can be used to encourage creative thinking. For example, asking the four year old with raspberry jam all over her face if she knows who ate the raspberry tart that was left on the table gives her a chance to create a story about how the Beanie Baby ate it. We might find the story harmless, humorous and delightfully creative. Both parent and child knows who “really” ate the tart, and each knows the other knows. They willingly and knowingly participate in a creative fantasy game that’s fun for both.

The game can become harmful however when the stakes are high and the players are serious.

When your thirteen year old daughter who has been told she’s not allowed to ride in cars with teen aged drivers is secretly observed getting out of her boyfriend’s car, the situation is serious.

When she’s asked, “what time did Mrs. Jones pick you up from the Movie Theater,” she’s convinced she didn’t get caught in the wrongful act, and encouraged to participate in a high stakes deception. She answers the question asked, “I think it was about seven thirty”. “Then how come you didn’t get home until past eight thirty?” her father inquires. She, now embellishing the story, responds, “we all stopped for ice cream after the movie.” “Oh how nice,” responds father, appearing to be making pleasant conversation, “and how many kids were there?” “Ah, there were four of us, Jimmy, Patrick, Allison, and me.” “That’s funny,” says dad, now risking a lie of his own, “I just talked with Allison’s mother, and she said Allison stayed home because she wasn’t feeling well.” “Oh, I forgot it wasn’t Allison, it was Jenny”, the daughter answers. Theresa’s father has an angry look on his face as he points his finger at her nose. “Theresa, you’ve just got to stop this lying. I gave you lots of chances to tell me the truth, and you chose to lie to me over and over again. How can you expect me to trust you? “Theresa”, father bellows, “I saw you getting out of Jimmy’s car and there was no one else in it”!

There is no humor in this father daughter interaction.  This well-meaning father was working way too hard. Perhaps he should have been satisfied with teaching one lesson at a time. The father’s direct and honest confrontation with evidence of the daughter’s disobedience would have eliminated the girl’s opportunity to add lying to her list of wrongful deeds.

A method used to teach creative thinking and blatant lying is similar. Creative thinking however can be taught in a context of cooperation, trust, and good-natured fun. Blatant lying is taught in a high stakes contest between parent and child where neither can trust the other to be honest.

—M. LaCourt

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