Q: We have an eight-year-old son (middle child) who has no problem lying. He is also a very impulsive child who doesn’t think before doing anything. We have tried to explain to him that we have a very hard time believing him as we never know when he is telling the truth. For example, he missed out on wearing a white shirt to his siyum as we really didn’t believe him when he told us that he had a siyum that day. (The rebbi had not asked the parents to send food.) Later, when he came home and we learned that he really did have a siyum, we explained to him that we never know when to take him seriously.
We have never called him a liar. But it really bothers us that he is lying so often, as we are very honest people. This just bothers us to no end.
A: Lying is a most serious matter. And all parents should be bothered if their children lie, even if it is only occasionally. As the Torah states, “Keep yourself distant from any falsehood.” (Shemos 23:7) And it is well known that such Torah luminaries as Harav Mordechai Gifter, zt”l, and Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt”l, just to mention two, showed more concern for dishonesty among their own children than they did for any misbehavior.
It is interesting to note, however, that in your brief letter you did not include a single example of the problem about which you are seeking my advice. Surely, if your son “has no problem lying,” you should have been able to include at least one illustrative example.
Instead, you included an example of how you were mistakenly dan your son l’chaf chov, assuming that since he lies so often, nothing he says can be true. Then, when you discovered that you had been chosheid b’k’sherim and that he had told the truth about the siyum, you used the opportunity to assign all the blame to him for your error.
Consider for a moment the position in which you have placed your son. If he lies, it bothers you “to no end.” If he tells the truth, as he did in the one episode you shared, he is treated as a liar anyway. And even when he succeeds in proving his honesty, as he apparently did regarding the siyum, he is still condemned for his past shortcomings and not deemed deserving of any apology.
What is the Torah way of handling a wrongful accusation? A precedent can be found in Sefer Shmuel. As a result of Chana’s behavior — her lips were moving yet no voice emanated from her mouth — Eli Hakohen assumed her to be inebriated. (Shmuel I 1:13) What was really going on was that she was davening to Hashem. When Eli realized he had misjudged her, however, he gave her a brachah. (Ibid 1:17) From this incident the Gemara extrapolates the following, “Rabi Elazar said, ‘from here [we learn] that if someone falsely suspects his fellow Jew [of improper conduct], he must appease him. And not only that, but he also must bless him.’” (Brachos 31b)
Returning to your son, you describe him as a “middle child,” meaning that he has both older and younger siblings. Typically, middle children often feel left out. They may feel overshadowed by their larger, more knowledgeable and more mature older siblings. And they may feel less appreciated than their younger siblings who are cuter and more the center of everyone’s attention. As a result, some middle children may try to garner more parental attention by acting up, misbehaving and/or lying. While they would certainly prefer approval, even negative attention beats being ignored. And there is no question, here, that your eight-year-old has grabbed much of your attention with his dishonesty.
The two primary motives for children lying, therefore, are to avoid excessively harsh punishment and to gain more parental attention. If your son is habitually lying, therefore, you will contribute more to the problem than the solution if you berate and criticize him for his falsehoods.
Instead, what you should be doing is examining your parenting practices with him. Ask yourselves if you are too strict and punitive with him. If so, make an effort to correct that as soon as possible. In addition, you should also evaluate how much time and attention he receives compared with his siblings. If it is less or even equal, you may need to find opportunities to give him more positive attention. If he hears more praise, compliments and approval from you, for example, or if he sees you taking more of an interest in those things which interest him, he may no longer feel the need to lie so often just to get your attention.
The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.