Saving Face in a Bold-faced Lie

"I didn't do it!" canstockphoto2914629

Kids lie all the time. Grown-ups do, too, in big and small ways. Sometimes we lie to be polite, as in: “That looks fabulous!” or “This is delicious!” Perhaps protecting someone else’s feelings makes lying permissible, but lying to protect ourselves often leads to trouble. So in our work with children, how should we respond to the inevitable lying that occurs? How can we raise truthful youth?

“I didn’t do it!” is probably the most common lie youngsters tell. Or, in the case of brushing teeth, the lie is: “I did do it.” Adults—including youth leaders at summer camp—always have the option of contradicting the child or teen. Sometimes, this mini trial approach works, especially if we have evidence.

“Well, your toothbrush is bone dry. How do you explain that?” (It’s like a whole episode of Law & Order in less than one minute.) In the face of hard evidence, most children acquiesce and fess up. “Um … OK … I didn’t actually brush … yet.” At those moments, praise of a special kind is in order. “I’m unhappy that you lied at the start. It makes it hard to trust you. But I’m very happy that you decided to tell the truth afterwards. That took some courage. What I’ll be listening for the next time is for the truth to come out right at the start.”

Another healthy approach is to make a process comment. Imagine you’re playing a game of cards with a young person. You think you witness some cheating. Even if you’re not 100 percent sure, you can say what you think is going on, without sounding accusatory. Young people tend to get defensive when you say, “Hey! You cheated!” but they respond better to a process comment such as, “It seems to me that it’s very important for you to win” or “You might be willing to break a rule in order to get ahead.”

Process comments prompt reflection. Reflection leads to learning. Learning results in behavior change. That’s exciting for any youth leader to witness. Best of all, substituting a process comment for an accusation saves face. The youngster can walk away from that interaction outwardly denying that there was any deceit. The real challenge comes when we don’t see behavior change. How should we handle chronic lying, for example?

In cases where contrary evidence and process comments fail, it’s time for a good old-fashioned sit-down talk. Here again, avoid accusations and focus on future behavior. This approach minimizes shame and maximizes the chances for durable behavior change. “Sam, I’ve noticed a few times when you haven’t been honest. I might be mistaken about the particulars, but that’s not what I wanted to talk with you about. What I wanted to talk with you about today is how to be honest with yourself and with other people in the future. Starting now, what are some things you can do that would help you play fair and tell the truth?”

A rich conversation full of creative ideas is likely. A few young people will, however, deny the premise of the sit-down talk. “I didn’t lie” or “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The best response is: “Maybe you didn’t lie, but that’s not why I wanted to talk with you. I wanted to talk about the best ways you can be truthful in the future. Your future behavior is what matters here.” Keep bringing the conversation back to future behavior. Be explicit with the methods and goals.

Try any of these three techniques—praise, process comments or a future-focused conversation—to promote shame-free improvements in all your kids’ conduct. If problems persist, it’s time to contact parents and a mental health professional. However, in most cases, one of these strategies will gain traction. And that’s the truth.

Dr. Christopher Thurber serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy, a coeducational boarding high school. He is the father of two boys and author of the best-selling Summer Camp Handbook. In 2007, Chris co-founded Expert Online Training .