Addressing Childhood Dishonesty

Q:As a parent of a child who veers from the truth, I eagerly devoured your answer in “Handling Children Who Veer from the Truth,” (Feb 10, ’14), looking for an end to the pain we go through with the same problem day in and day out. I was thoroughly disappointed, and yes, outraged by your response. While perhaps the parents writing to you chose the wrong example, I think you missed the point of the letter.

It does not matter how many children with this issue you have treated, if you have never had a child like this, you cannot understand the absolute pain of not being able to believe a single word your child tells you, yes, even when they are telling the truth.

Having learned and read all there is on this subject and discussed this with a posek, there is no being dan l’chaf zechus with someone who lies so often and easily that they no longer have a chezkas kashrus...

A:For the benefit of readers who do not recall the letter to which you are referring, I will summarize it here. Parents wrote that their eight-year-old son has “no problem lying.” As a result, they “have a very hard time believing him.” The only example they cited, however, was not a lie that he told. Rather, they wrote about an episode where the boy told his parents that he needed to wear a white shirt for a siyum that day in yeshivah. And because the parents did not believe him, the boy “missed out.”

In my response, I asked the parents to consider the dilemma for their son. If he lies, he upsets his parents. And if he tells the truth, as he had in the one incident the parents reported, he is still treated as liar. I then cited the two primary causes of childhood dishonesty: avoiding excessively harsh punishment and gaining more parental attention. And I concluded by recommending that the parents take a closer look at their parenting practices to see if they may be inadvertently provoking dishonesty in their son.

While the two causes I cited for childhood dishonesty are the primary reasons children tell lies, there is another source which is much less common. And that is when a child has inborn sociopathic personality traits. In the original letter, that did not appear to be the case. From your description of your child, however, that may very well be what you are confronting.

Sociopathic personality traits can be found in adolescents, and at times, among preteens as well. These would include: being physically violent, vandalizing property, stealing, truancy, as well as lying to obtain goods or favors or to avoid obligations. Once-a-week individual therapy is usually inadequate to correct such deep- seated, chronic patterns of misbehavior. Children whose behavior is so inappropriate, therefore, often need some form of residential treatment.

If your child, chalilah, fits the description above, then your pain must be truly indescribable. And, as you articulated, only one who has such a child can truly understand your daily anguish. As Chazal have taught (Pirkei Avos 2:4), “Do not judge your fellow until you are in his [identical] situation.”

Chazal have also taught (Pirkei Avos 1:6); “Judge everyone favorably.” I have not “learned and read all there is on this” Mishnah. Nor was I privy to your consultation with your posek. Nevertheless, even if you are not required to be dan your child l’chaf zechus, I doubt your posek would rule that you are forbidden to judge your child favorably.

In revealing some secrets of the Hebrew alphabet, Chazal explain the significance of the shape of the letter hei (Menachos 29b). “[It is] similar to [the shape of an] elevated platform [which is open at the bottom to teach that] whoever wishes to leave this world [by behaving improperly] may leave. And what is the reason [that the left] leg [is open, appearing] suspended? [This is to teach that] if one wishes to return with teshuvah, he may reenter.”

When parents convey the message to their child that there is nothing he can ever do to regain his parents’ trust, however, that child will give up trying to correct his ways. If we want Hakadosh Baruch Hu to leave the door open, so to speak, and allow us to return to Him, then we must sometimes demonstrate that we are willing to leave the door open to others who want to reconcile with us. And I would hope, therefore, regardless of the age of your child who lies, that you communicate to him that you are always ready and eager to resume trusting him as soon as he demonstrates that he is worthy of your trust.


 

The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.