Q: My son's fifth-grade teacher says he's been lying to me about school. I'm devastated! He's always been honest with me. I'm trying hard to instill trust and good values in him. How can I teach him not to lie?
A: It's an ongoing process, and you're wise to focus on it now.
"Fifth-graders approaching middle school are moving slowly from an external locus of control -- where significant adults in their lives chart their path -- to an internal one, where they take the wheel and navigate decision-making, covering all sorts of critical life events, including those connected to health and safety, such as underage drinking and other drug use," says Stephen Gray Wallace, a school psychologist and director of Susquehanna University's Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania.
In truth, your son has probably lied for several years. Studies show "that by their 4th birthday, almost all kids will begin lying to avoid getting in trouble," says Wallace. "Research shows that many kids learn to lie by observing their parents lie or at least shave the truth. Some parents encourage children to tell 'white lies' to avoid hurting someone's feelings."
What can you do establish truth and trust?
Express disappointment, not "devastation," says Wallace.
"Getting emotional gives your son's lies too much power," he says. "Behavioral therapist James Lehman's studies show that some kids will lie because of the excitement factor."
Don't call your son a liar; distinguish between the person and the behavior. Labeling him puts him in a corner.
Establish and enforce consequences for lying that make the child uncomfortable in some way.
"This discourages future lying," says Wallace.
For many families, an apology is one effective consequence.
"If he's been lying to you about homework, have him pen a note to you and one to his teacher promising to be forthcoming in the future," Wallace adds.
Communicate that consequences are about enforcing family rules, not morality. "Make it clear that lying is wrong, but make enforcement about meeting behavior standards you expect," says Wallace. "It's more effective to say: 'You broke a law we have agreed you will follow. When you break rules, there are consequences.'"
Make time to talk often. Listen without being judgmental.
"Kids are more likely to tell you the truth if they're not afraid you'll overreact," says Wallace.
If your son knows that you do not ever want him to smoke, for example, "You have to be willing to listen calmly when he tells you that a friend's older brother is offering him e-cigarettes," says Wallace. "This kind of listening takes patience and time."
To set the stage for listening, "One mother frequently picks up her 12-year-old from school, rather than have him ride the bus," notes Wallace. "She takes a long way home to hear what's on his mind. It gives them opportunities they rarely have at home."
As your son becomes more independent, Wallace says these conversations continue to be important.
"When you aren't there to listen or react, you want to be able to trust that he will make safe choices and be personally accountable for his actions," he says.
For more, visit eCAREforkids.org.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)