Can Truth Come From a Child’s Humiliation?

On Thursday, I was watching television as I ate my breakfast.

There was a clip about a boy aged about 10 or 11 years old. He was standing by the side of the road holding a yellow placard. On the placard in large letters were the words, “I can’t stop lying. I think my mother is stupid but I keep getting caught.”. (Not the exact words but that was the message.)

The boy was interviewed. He said his mother was trying to teach him a lesson. The mother was interviewed. She wanted to embarrass him into telling the truth.

I felt really sad to see this negative relationship pattern between parents and children. I find parents try to teach their children not to lie by focusing on ‘lying’ behavior. They catch their children in lies and then punish them. However, if the child admits to doing something wrong, that is, tell the truth, then they also get punished. It’s a no-win situation for the child.

When parents focus on lying rather than truth-telling they tend to get into power struggles with their children that create a vicious cycle in which everyone is a loser. The parents catch their children in lies and punish them. The children are frightened of being punished so they lie. Frightened children tend to lie or go mute. The more children lie, the more their parents catch them in lies, and punish them. Children become afraid of their parents. The parents become suspicious of the children.  Both become angry with each other.  It’s a bad outcome for everyone involved.

Punishment and humiliation can easily backfire damaging any relationship. The relief children experience when they are not caught is reinforcing -tempting them to lie again.  From this cycle, what children actually learn from their parents is “It’s OK to lie, just don’t get CAUGHT lying”.

Parents would do better to focus on their children’s truth-telling behavior. How to do that? See the handout for parents in our Articles section.

With care and concern,

Dr. Bea Mackay

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