Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Boundary Parenting: lying

I've been reading a couple of other bloggers who are having trouble with kids lying. I offer my experience with lying. This not advice. It is just the path I chose.

Carl, as I have said many times before, is a habitual liar. It seems to be something deep. My speech center is somehow connected to my perception of reality. When I speak, what I say is informed by that perception. Though I have told lies and probably will tell more, I pretty much have to decide to lie. Carl's speech center seemed to be connected to his perception of what other people wanted him to be or how he wanted the world to be. It was automatic. Telling the truth was something he seemed to have to decide to do.

So I decided I was going to fix that. I was going to have consequences for lying. I would have rewards for telling the truth. I would make him see that the path to happiness required relationships, which required trust, which required honesty.

But see, I stink at behavior modification. Though kids in my care have grown, healed, or even learned better, healthier or more ethical ways to live, it was never because I enacted a behavior modification plan that worked. We did some behavior mod stuff with Brian when he was small that was successful. We got him to stop whining. That may be my one and only behavior mod success.

In the beginning I tried to change Carl's behavior. If I caught him in a lie, I called him on it. I imposed a consequence. He apologized. We talked. We agreed I would give him a second chance. And then he would lie to me again. It got more and more frustrating. I got angry. I cried in my bedroom. I asked the social worker what I was doing wrong. I felt like a bad parent and a fool to boot.

What I ended up doing with Carl, I realize now, was to do what I now think of as boundary parenting. I stopped trying to change him and focused on what I needed to take care of me. Though I continued to love Carl, I stopped believing him. When he spoke I listened, and I responded to the emotional needs he expressed. I realized that it often did not really matter to me if what he said was true. If he said he was fired "for no good reason," did it really make a difference in my life if it was a good reason? I mean really? It meant I no longer had to drive him to that location. It meant that he did not have money and would not have money until he found a new job. All he really needed from me was a little motherly sympathy and encouragement.

I remembered too that he was my son, not my friend or my life partner. I could not accept this behavior in a friend, but this was a different relationship. I needed different things from him.

If what he said was information that I needed to make a decision, I got that information from a reliable source. I did not hide this from him. If he told me he needed $25 for a field trip I would say, "Okay. I will call the school." I would call, find out that the kids were told that they should have $7 for lunch and $10-15 more if they wanted to buy something while they were there. I would then give him $7 for lunch.

For a while I did this with an attitude of victory. You know: "Ha, ha, you didn't fool me" attitude. Sometimes I did it with an sort of devious innocence of my own, "Carl, honey, who told you you needed $25? Was it one of the other kids? I'll talk to him for you if you like."

After a while it stopped being much of a source of pleasure. It was just how I dealt with him. He would protest sometimes as I simply wrote a check when Andrew said he needed money and called the school when he said he did. I never pretended it was anything other than it was. I would say something like, "You know I love you Carl, but if you were me would you believe you about money?" Fortunately he was the kind of kid who accepted that. It may have been grudging acceptance, but he got it. That is still how I deal with him. Like when he called last summer. In order to decide whether to bring him home I did not need to know if he was really sick. I would if I were going to send him money for a doctor.*

So what were the results of this technique? It is possible that he slowly lied less often. I want to believe he did. I seem to remember that it was better at the end. I'm not certain that it was.

I am certain that the conflict in our relationship went down. I stopped crying in the bedroom and feeling like a failure. Whether or not he became an honest adult was not my issue anymore. I was able to help him figure out what he wanted to do next in his life without caring (much) about whether he was telling the truth about having already turned in the application. And he did suffer a perfectly natural consequence of lying -- he was no longer believed.

Okay...I'm lying now. I did not have a sudden and complete conversion to this way of thinking and my emotions were not always in accord with it. Sometimes I would find out that he had lied and I would rant to my husband or my friend that I did not understand why he did it when the truth would have been just as good. Why did he so often lie for no reason at all?

I am not lying though about this: to the extent that I was able to do it, it helped. It helped keep our relationship focused where it should be. It was the right way for me to handle it and if I could change anything I would have started this approach sooner and used it more consistently. It might not be the best for everyone else, but it was for us.

Perhaps it was that he was 16 years old that made it the right thing to do.

Or maybe it is just that I stink at behavior modification.

*Over the past year I have bought Carl a bus ticket home, sent him a gift card to a grocery store when he said he was broke and hungry, and offered to pay the bill for new glasses if he has it sent to me. If I send him cash, it is a present which I know he can spend any way he wants.


  1. You are so very good at this. I can imagine few other parents reflecting on Carl's lying in this way and making changes that reflect his needs (ie, he wasn't going to stop lying) and your own. Many parents would, I think, just keep upping the consequences and getting more and more frustrated and angry when Carl still didn't change.

    I, too, stink at behavior modification. I don't think I EVER used it successfully. I really am beginning to believe it doesn't work for some kids--kids who are fiercely independent or who need to be in control (maybe those are the same things)--and that's not necessarily a bad thing. How has Carl's lying worked for him now that he's an adulthood?

  2. I have started to do some of what you describe here too. Calling the school, checking things for myself. The behavior modification seems to work for some things, but lying doesn't seem to be one of them. For my kids it seems so automatic, and like you said, I almost need to step away from it in order to stay sane.


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