563. Beyond Perry Mason

Many of us learn that it’s a sin to tell a lie, and that confession is good for the soul. And so many parents get quite concerned when their children lie, and get quite frustrated trying to elicit confessions. I remember how my own parents used to do it. They lined us up facing them and told us we were going to stand there until one of us told the truth. One time, they lined us up just before “Junior Frolics” was on television. My brothers didn’t care about “Junior Frolics.” I did. So I confessed. I don’t remember whether my confession was true, but for the five year old child I was, that wasn’t the point. (By the way, I had to miss “Junior Frolics” anyway.)
It used to be that when children lied to me, I got just as upset as my parents had, and though I didn’t line them up the way my parents had, I cross-examined them the way I imagined Perry Mason would have. I must have hoped for dramatic confessions that would bring the truth out into the light of day. I wasn’t born yesterday, I thought, and nobody’s gonna get away with trying to pull the wool over my eyes. And I don’t want children to grow up to be Richard Nixon or Oliver North!
But I’ve learned from the ineffectiveness of the Perry Mason approach, from observing children who lie, and from my memories of childhood. And last week, when five year old Matthew and ten year old Eric were visiting me, I used an approach I’ve found more effective:
First of all, five-year-olds’ lying tends to be different from ten-year-olds’ lying. I saw a pair of my shoes on the floor, in the middle of the doorway to my bedroom. I said, “Whoever left my shoes there, please put them back.” Eric didn’t say anything, but Matthew, with a guilty look, said, “I didn’t put them there.” I asked Eric, and he answered, in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, that he hadn’t put them there. Knowing both children, I believed Eric. Not that I was sure Eric would never lie – just that he was less likely to lie about leaving my shoes in the doorway. It just wasn’t Eric’s kind of thing to do.
I asked if one of them would please put the shoes away, and Eric did. Then, I told them, in a dramatic voice, that I knew what had happened – that a notorious shoe-mover had sneaked into my home when our backs were turned, and had moved my shoes to the doorway. I smiled as I spoke (I didn’t want Matthew to have nightmares), and we were able to put the issue away for the day.
A few days later, Matthew came to visit me without Eric. I told him I’d figured out that he had moved my shoes, and I asked him to do me a favor: next time he does something, instead of telling me he didn’t, could he please tell me he did? It would be more honest. Matthew likes to do favors for me, and he agreed to alter his style in this way. This approach probably wouldn’t have worked for Perry Mason, but I think Matthew is now a little less likely to lie to me.

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