Monday, February 17, 2020

Lies and Punishment: What’s a Mom and Dad to Do?

Parenting Tips for the Modern Family

(Zhuk,Adobe Stock)

Lies and Punishment: What’s a Mom and Dad to Do?


Bad behavior is unpleasant for everybody, but when it’s your child and you are the one responsible to provide correction, it can quickly become uncomfortable and tricky. There’s no shortage of ideas about child discipline, some often contradict each other.

I found an approach I like in the book The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting by Dr. Laurence Steinberg. It includes five elements for effective punishment, and they just make so much sense.

(Gwimages, Adobe Stock)

Instead of confusion, a parent can have confidence:

(, Adobe Stock)

Steinberg suggests the-following order:

• An identification of the specific act that was wrong.
• A statement describing the impact of the misbehavior.
• A suggestion for one or more alternatives to the undesirable behavior.
• A clear statement of what the punishment is going to be.
• A statement of your expectation that your child will do better the next time (2005, p. 156)

It seems like a lot, but look at the example here and see what you think:

Try to do all five of these whenever you punish your child. Your four-year-old has been told that she should not whine when she can't have her way. Now she's whining because you won't let her have a cookie right before dinner. Say something like this: "Please don't whine when you want something (Identification). It puts me in a bad mood (Impact). If you are hungry and it is nearly dinner time, you can have a carrot or a piece of celery (Alternative). I'm going to put you on a time-out until you've settled down (Punishment). I know the next time I say you can't have something, you won't whine about it (Expectation)"(2005, p. 156)

I love this pattern. It demystifies how to respond to almost any bad behavior and it applies young children as well as teenagers. I’m sure I’ve managed to include these elements here and there in my efforts to do my best, but until now I haven’t included all five in such a concise way. It may take some practice to do this in real life (please do not tell my children I need any extra opportunities!), but it is worth the effort. With this method, a child is not confused why they are receiving punishment because the behavior is identified. They are taught what the impact of their actions are. I think the best part is providing an alternative because children often feel like they had no choice—when really, they just lack experience. Stating an expectation is also another way of expressing confidence in them that they can make good choices in the future.


(Yu, Adobe Stock)

I once heard someone say, “When your child learns he can lie, it’s a sign of intelligence. When he chooses not to lie, it’s a sign of maturity.” I thought that was pretty clever, but soon realized it didn’t offer much direction on what to do when a child keeps choosing to lie. Feeling good about a sign of intelligence can only last for so long!

Thankfully, parents do have options when it comes to dealing with this perplexing part of child development. The first step, according to Dr. Haim G. Ginott, (Between Parent and Child, 2003) is to prevent them—or at least not provoke lies. Hopefully parents don’t do this intentionally, but here is how Ginott explains it:

Children resent being interrogated by a parent, especially when they suspect that the answers are already known. They hate questions that are traps, questions that force them to choose between an awkward lie and an embarrassing confession (65-66).

He gives some examples:

Thus, it’s not a good idea to ask questions to which we already have the answers. For instance, “Did you clean the room as I asked?” while looking at a dirty room. Or, “Did you go to school today?” after having been informed that your daughter did not. A statement is preferable: “I see the room has not been cleaned yet.” Or, “We have been told that you skipped school today” (66-67).

I’ve always thought it was disingenuous to ask a question I knew the answer to in an effort to catch a lie. I think it can erode trust between a child and a parent. 

Ginott has more thoughts on why children may lie: “Sometimes they lie because they are not allowed to tell the truth” (67).

Four-year-old Willie stormed into the living room, angry, and complained to his mother: “I hate Grandma!” His mother, horrified, answered, “No, you don’t. You love Grandma! In this home we don’t hate. Besides, she gives you presents and takes you places. How can you even say such a horrible thing?”

But Willie insisted, “No, I hate her, I hate her. I don’t want to see her anymore.” His mother, now really upset, decided to use a more drastic educational method. She spanked Willie.
Willie, not wanting to be punished more, changed his tune: “I really love Grandma, Mommy,” he said. How did Mommy respond? She hugged and kissed Willie and praised him for being such a good boy.

What did little Willie learn from this exchange? It’s dangerous to tell the truth, to share your true feelings with your mother. When you’re truthful, you get punished; when you lie, you get love. Truth hurts. Stay away from it. Mommy loves little liars. Mommy likes to hear only pleasant truths. Tell her only what she wants to hear, not how you really feel (67).

This passage highlights how our children are learning from us in ways we may not intend or are even aware of. I think we need to ask ourselves what kind of parent we want to be, and then examine the messages we are sending by our actions. It might be uncomfortable to realize we’ve been teaching very different things from what we value.

(Nastia1983, Adobe Stock)
Is there a better way?

Ginott answers:

What could Willie’s mother have answered if she wanted to teach Willie to tell the truth?
She would have acknowledged his upset: “Oh, you no longer love Grandma. Would you like to tell me what Grandma did that made you so angry?” He may have answered, “She brought a present for the baby, not for me.”

If we want to teach honesty, then we must be prepared to listen to bitter truths as well as pleasant truths. If children are to grow up honest, they must not he encouraged to lie about their feelings, be they positive, negative, or ambivalent. It is from our reactions to their expressed feelings that children learn whether or not honesty is the best policy (68).

Our reactions matter so much. Do our actions align with what we claim is important?
More reasons children may lie:

Lies that tell truths. When punished for truth, children lie in self-defense. They also lie to give themselves in fantasy what they lack in reality. Lies tell truths about fears and hopes. They reveal what one would like to be or do. To a discerning ear, lies reveal what they intend to conceal. A mature reaction to a lie should reflect understanding of its meaning, rather than denial of its content or condemnation of its author. The information gained from the lie can be used to help the child to distinguish between reality and wishful thinking.

Ginott gives this example and a wonderful way to guide children:

When three-year-old Jasmine informed her grandma that she received a live elephant for Christmas, her grandma reflected her wish rather than tried to prove to her granddaughter that she was a liar. She answered, “You wish you did. You wish you had an elephant! You wish you had your own zoo! You wish you had a jungle full of animals! (68).

So, What’s a Mom and Dad to Do?

More can be said about understanding and responding to lying, but these insights can help a parent reduce instances when they might be tempted to provoke a lie, and also help them start to see them for what the lies could mean. As Ginott says, when “dealing with dishonesty, an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of investigation” (68). If we want our children to learn that there is no need to lie to us, we can respond without interrogating and by redirecting them to the truth.

(Passey, tl;dr)

Navigate the Series

Series Introduction

First Post - Parenting Styles

Second Post - More Than Moods


Ginott, H. G., Ginott, A., & Goddard, H. W. (2003) Between parent and child. New York: Random House.

Gwimages. Boy in Trouble. [Photo]. Retrieved from

Nastia1983. Fun pupil girl. [Photo]. Retrieved from

Passey, T. (2020) tl;dr. [Graphic]. School psychologist with smart boy. [Photo]. Retrieved from

Steinberg, L. D. (2003). The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. 

Yu, Feng. Lies. [Graphic]. Retrieved from

Zhuk, A. Happy Young Family. [Photo]. Retrieved from


For more on lying and other tricky behavior, read: Chapter 3 "Self-defeating Patterns: There's No Right Way to Do a Wrong Thing"  from Between Parent and Child, 2003.

No comments:


Related Posts with Thumbnails

Inspiration for the Blog & Life