Sometimes parents quite innocently create the very problems they fear most. For Bill, honesty is understandably the most important value. But in his attempts to emphasize it, he is scaring his son into lying. When his dad asks him whether he’s done or not done something, all Amory hears is his dad’s upset. He’s not meaning to lie. He’s looking for a way to get his dad to not be upset with him. He’s also learned that his dad will punish him if he doesn’t get the answer he’s looking for.

This little boy is in a no-win situation: Tell the truth about an infraction and be punished, or get caught not telling the truth and be punished even more. He knows he’ll eventually be punished no matter what. But, in the moment, telling his dad what he seems to want to hear looks like a way out. His mom seems powerless to stop his dad once dad is on a roll.

Furthermore, Amory is at a stage when it’s sometimes hard to sort out fantasy and imagination from reality. When he is fully caught up in play, he may “be” the superhero. When he runs very fast, he feels like the champion of his imagination. When he brags he can count to 200, he feels like maybe he can – especially since he wants to so much. Storybook tales of giants and monsters and elves are very real to him. So is Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Sometimes he creates tales and then believes them to be real.

Amory’s dad needs empathy, not scolding. He’s a good man who really wants to do right by his son. The shame he felt as a kid is still very much with him. He isn’t wrong to want his children to be scrupulously honest or to want his wife’s support in raising them that way. He does need to understand that there’s a better way to meet his goal.

Fortunately, he’s a smart man. Once he hears that Janice and I agree with his goal, he’s willing to listen to new ways to reach it. Once reassured that his little boy is a normal kid in a normal life stage, he is able to settle down. And once his wife and I both empathize with how hard it was to grow up the son of a known liar, he is able to engage in the conversation. Over the next two months, we worked on these six key areas for changing the atmosphere in Bill and Janice’s home and for helping Amory learn how to be honest.