I had a problem with lying when I was growing up. Truth be told, I can still feel that old, familiar tug within me when I feel that I’ve been caught in a situation in which I’m uncomfortable. Now I take a deep breath, say a quick prayer for words and wisdom, and tell the truth. When I was a child, though, such cognition simply wasn’t on my radar. I would feel that tug in my gut (which I’m now able to identify as shame), and lie like a snake.
It was self-preservation. I was afraid…
…afraid of being caught doing or saying something that I wasn’t supposed to, or not doing or saying something that I should have;
…afraid of getting in trouble and being punished;
…afraid of how my parents would treat me and what they would think of me; and
…afraid (unacknowledged, but deep down) that I was this bad person who lied all of the time.
My parents weren’t the type to read parenting books, so they followed their instincts. (In their defense, I don’t know that many parenting method books were available in the 1970s and 1980s.) Conventional wisdom in my family of origin home was to teach the lying child a lesson and scare her into not lying again.
Punishment was dealt out depending upon the gravity of my deception. Sometimes I was merely shouted at, one parent or both right up in my face at about 106 decibels (about the same as tympani and bass drum in a symphony). This was the basic level.
Next came shouting and some type of physical punishment — grabbing, spanking, shaking, and the like. One time my mother washed out my mouth with gold Dial soap. To this day I neither use nor purchase Dial soap for my family.
If I’d done something really bad, then I was shouted at, punished physically, and then grounded. Although, the physical stuff ended as I grew into adolescence. It seemed that I was forever getting something taken away or not allowed to play with friends. Perhaps my perception was off, but that’s what I remember.
I learned two things: (1) if I’m gonna lie, don’t get caught; and (2) probably better not to lie as to avoid the above described punishment.
Clearly I learned the lesson my parents meant to teach me. Right?
Partially, at best.
I was never taught to explore my own behavior and figure out why I tended to lie in the first place. Moreover, I was never guided through decision-making. I learned to be ashamed — of myself and of my behavior — and I entered adulthood questioning whether I was a good person.
Fast forward to the present day. My husband and I are parents of two beautiful, vivacious, kind-hearted, God-loving, spunky, and strong-willed daughters. (They get that last trait from their father, to be sure.) Our 8-year-old recently began displaying the same lying techniques and cover up efforts that I did. (People often say that she looks like me. I wish she wouldn’t have inherited my lying eyes.)
I can only assume that the emotions that I feel are similar to those which my parents bore. (Beyond their obvious displays of anger and disappointment, they never discussed such things with young me.) First there is hurt and anger, of course; and then I get annoyed. Then the fear quickly settles in.
This is the moment! Eric and I need to do everything NOW to ensure that our child does not become a psychopathic liar!
Despite what I remember about my own experience with lying and being punished — you know, how (what I label as) harsh discipline didn’t teach me the fundamental link between truth-telling, integrity, and self-worth — my first instinct was to deal with my daughter the same way. As much as I remember how awfully I’d felt, and how much shame I’d carried around with me, I began treating my child the same way I’d been treated. The voice of my strict, strong disciplinarian parents bellowed through my mind — some such words about growing up to be a responsible adult, good citizen, blah, blah, blah. I found myself implementing “tough love” strategies, speaking without empathy, and barking life lessons that most adults don’t heed.
I need to establish my authority now, I thought. Presently she’s only 8. We gotta get this under control before the teen years hit.
And then God opened my eyes and my ears to my daughter, who is a precious person with feelings, by the way, not a project in social engineering. I saw her shameful cower, her knees drawn into her chest, and her head trying to find somewhere, anywhere, to bury itself deeper. I heard her crying; I heard her protesting; I heard her anger and her forthrightness. And I heard her (subliminal) cry out to me. Love me! My heart broke for her.
Then God showed me myself at 8-years-old. I looked and sounded just like my daughter. Praise the Lord the Spirit woke me up. I could not, would not continue to discipline her or her sister the way that I had been.
I recently read and began implementing Love and Logic, a parenting and teaching school of thought pioneered by Foster Cline and Jim Fay. It came highly recommended to me via trusted friends who also happen to be teachers and childcare professionals. The book put into words what God via my intuition had been trying to tell me.
No matter what they do, our children need our love. And if they need discipline, they not only need our love, they need empathy as well. Nothing disciplines and teaches children as well as a parent who relates to how they are feeling and the natural consequences of their own actions.
I saw this in action with my own child when she was caught in a lie recently. I didn’t need to yell, threaten, or even lecture. Her own sense of right and wrong was eating her up, and she felt terrible about what she’d done. “So what will you do when something like this comes up again?” I asked. “I’m not gonna lie, that’s for sure!” she answered emphatically.
It still feels illogical to let discipline take its course via consequences and not dish out punishment and parental wisdom. Additionally, it feels just plain wimpy to embrace my daughter and speak kindly to her when I’m wanting nothing but to scold and shout, “What on earth were you thinking?!?!” The voice inside my head tells me that I’m not doing enough to shape my daughter. She isn’t remorseful enough! it says to me. How will you know if she’s learning if you don’t enforce lessons?
Then another voice, a small, still one, retorts. You have no idea what is going on in that head and heart of hers, no idea how God is shaping her in this very moment. This is the voice that Love and Logic has taught me to listen to. I believe it is the voice of God. It is love that conquers all, is it not?
Shouting, threatening, physical punishment, and deliberate shaming may get a child under a parent’s control. It may even put the fear of Mom and Dad into the child’s soul. But she or he does not learn. A child raised with the kind of discipline with which I was raised, say Cline and Fay, will grow to become adults who lack healthy decision-making skills, blame others for their poor decisions, fail to own responsibility for their actions, and feel entitled to sympathy. They are also inept at relationships. I can attest to this truth. I was that young adult until God set me free.
I now see my daughter’s lying not as a personal affront to me (because it’s so not about me, anyway), but as a learning opportunity. I get it now. Lying is part of childhood. She’s figuring out what her limits are by testing them, and sometimes crossing them. And when she does, I ask questions, shut my mouth, and allow her to think though what has transpired. In two short weeks I’ve been amazed at how many times a light bulb has gone on in her head.
“I know, Mama!” she exclaims (as if to say “Elementary, my dear mother!”). “How about next time I …”
Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, NLT).