“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.