“Please tell my husband he’s over-reacting.” The woman across from me is quietly concerned. I can’t tell yet if she is worried about her son or if she’s worried how her husband will react to her request.

“I’m not over-reacting. The kid is a chronic liar. If we don’t stop it now, who knows where this will lead!” The dad is upset. He’s upset with his son. He’s upset with his wife for not being as upset as he is. He’s going to be upset with me unless I can calm things down a bit.

“Let’s start from the beginning,” I suggest. “Why don’t you tell me more about it?”

The dad jumps in right away. “Amory constantly lies. I mean constantly. You ask him whether he washed his hands before dinner and he’ll say yes even though I know he didn’t. You ask him if he’s fed the dog. Same thing. And the stories! He tells outrageous stories. You should hear him. According to him, he can run faster than any other kid at school. He says he can count all the way to 200 and I know he can’t. He says he has lots of friends but the teacher tells us she’s worried because Amory doesn’t seem to know how to get along. We’ve got to get this under control!”

“How old is Amory?” I ask.

“He’s four and big enough to know better.”

The mom finally chimes in. “Honey, he’s only four. Really. You’ve got to calm down. He’s not a murderer or something. He’s just a little kid!”

“You’re not getting it, are you?” her husband shouts. “The kid is always lying and now you’re defending him.”

“Uh-oh,” I’m thinking. “I wonder what’s got this man so upset. Yes, the boy needs to understand the difference between a lie and the truth and between reality and make-believe. But his dad has to understand the difference between a developmental stage and a permanent character flaw. It looks to me like he’s had some experience that makes this issue very, very hard for him to handle.”

Bill and Janice are in their 40s and have 2 small children: Amory, who is 4, and Vicky, who is now 2. It was important to both to be financially stable before they had kids, so they waited a long time to start a family. Both are determined to do a good job as parents. Bill, especially, wants to do it better than he feels his parents did with him. That’s why this issue is so painful to them. It’s also why they sought help immediately.

In further conversation with the couple, I learn that the Bill’s father was a source of great shame for him. Throughout his childhood, his dad was the guy in the neighborhood who “borrowed” things and somehow “forgot” to return them. He took things from his employers and then justified it on the basis that he wasn’t paid enough. He bragged about cheating on his income taxes. Eventually he got involved with petty crime. Although he could be charming and funny, he had a reputation as a liar and a scoundrel. Bill’s dad always had a story.

The dad I’m seeing now spent his growing-up years listening to people berate his father and sympathize with his mother. Bill’s reaction? A vow to never, ever be anything like his dad and to never, ever tolerate lying from anyone else. He became an upstanding citizen, scrupulous in every way. He expects nothing less from his son. He is terrified that his dad’s con-man ways are genetic. His wife’s dilemma is that although she respects her husband enormously for his integrity she is in disagreement about whether their son really has a problem and, if so, what to do about it.

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.

  1. Come to terms with your own “triggers.” “Triggers” are issues that set us off out of proportion to the situation because of past painful experiences. Bill needed to come to terms with his painful childhood memory of his dad’s dishonest behavior in a way that didn’t visit it on his son. Once he understood this, Bill was able to be less reactive.

  2. If things have become overblown, apologize. Bill needed to make a change in how he was handling the situation but he needed to do so in a way that would be clear to his son. An apology is a marker for change. He told Amory that he gets so upset about lying because it hurts his feelings but now he knows yelling about it hurts Amory’s feelings too. He is genuinely sorry for that. He then told Amory that they would work on the problem together. This helps Amory make sense of what, to him, could be a very confusing change in his dad’s behavior.
  3. Talk about how important it is to tell the truth. Even children as young as 3 or 4 can understand how important it is to tell the truth. However, conversations about it need to take place when there is no immediate issue and when the adults can be calm. There are many excellent children’s books that can help. Bill dug up a book about the boy who called wolf to read to Amory. They were then able to talk about it together.

    It was important that Janice got involved with this as well. Amory needed to understand that both of his parents wanted him to tell the truth. Bill needed to feel that Janice took the issue as seriously as he did.

  4. Help children sort reality from fiction. At ages 4 – 5 children often have difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality. When Amory says he’s the fastest in the class, it’s because he wishes he were and sometimes pretends he is. If Bill is sure that Amory really isn’t the fastest, a more helpful response than “You’re lying again” is to say “I bet you really wish that was true. Running faster than everyone else would feel great!” Bill was able to implement this change right away.
  5. Don’t set a child up to say what they think you want to hear. Rather than ask “Did you feed the dog?” when he knows Amory has forgotten, Bill learned to say something like, “Rex looks hungry. I bet you forgot. Do you need help getting his dinner?”

    After the chore is done, it’s time to talk some more. Bill talked regularly to Amory about how important it is that he do his chores and be truthful about it. This puts the emphasis on taking care of business and shows Amory that lying doesn’t get him out of doing what he is supposed to do.

  6. Catch children doing the right thing. Whenever Amory shows trustworthiness or truthfulness, both parents now catch him being good. This has shifted the emphasis from getting negative attention for doing the wrong thing to getting positive attention for doing the right thing. Children thrive on attention. It’s important that we give them the right kind.

Fast forward three months. Bill has stuck with the program and Amory is a much happier — and honest — little boy.

Janice is relieved. She had felt caught between the two “men” in her life. She didn’t like seeing her son scolded so much by his dad but she didn’t want to undermine her husband either. A new approach to teaching put her back on the same team with Bill.

Bill is relieved. Once he was given some information and some tools, he became a consistent and much more friendly teacher for his son and it’s paid off.

I’m relieved too. Therapy doesn’t always work so well or so quickly. But in this case, we all made a good team.