Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: Liar liar

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Dear Virginia, I am in despair because I have found that my six-year-old son has been lying to me. I've only caught him out twice – once when he said he hadn't broken something when he had, and once when he said he'd finished his supper and it turned out he'd put it in the bin when I wasn't looking. I really worry. Should I punish him next time he does it? Yours sincerely, Claudia

I have to say that, reading your letter, I'm jolly glad I'm not your son. My heart goes out to the poor wretch. First you say you "caught him out" as if he were some kind of devil hell-bent on destroying you; next you ask if you should "punish" him. And of course, there is the even more frightening aspect of it all, which is that you are "in despair".

Have you no humanity, Helen? No sense of reality? Have you never lied in your life? Of course you have. And why have you lied? You've lied to save yourself. If you'd told your best friend that you thought she'd behaved like a bitch to her boyfriend, she would have turned on you and, possibly, cut you out of her life. So I'm sure that, like any good friend, you didn't. You might have hinted that you thought she might have considered his feelings a little bit more, but otherwise you were understanding and, basically, on her side. And have you never lied to your son? I bet, when he's caught you crying, you've invented some excuse to justify the tears. And did you never lie when you were small? And can't you remember why?

We lie out of fear. We may disguise it by saying it's to spare other people's feelings, but really it's because we're frightened, if we don't lie, of other people's feelings spilling out into aggression towards us. And that's why your son's lying. He is terrified of you.

Can't the poor boy break the odd vase or plate by accident without you coming down on him like a ton of bricks? Haven't you ever done anything like the same? Surely you've broken the odd glass or vase by mistake. My cat once ate the school hamster when I was caring for it over Christmas. Having discovered that I couldn't find another hamster as old and fat as the original in pet shops around London, I'm afraid I lied and said he'd died of a heart attack. It made life easier – for me.

And what's all this about your son not finishing his supper? In this age of obesity terror, you should be completely unjumpy about his eating less, not badgering him to eat more. There might have been some point in encouraging children to clean their plates when food was scarce, but none now. And the more you make an issue out of eating, the more likely he'll be to develop food problems when he's older. And do remember, anyway, that young children have much more sensitive taste buds than us hoary-tongued old adults. I literally couldn't eat cauliflower or bacon fat when I was young without retching. Now I gobble them down with gusto.

Lighten up. Tell your son that you couldn't care less about broken china or secretly disposed food. All you mind about is his lying to you. Tell him (and mean it) that you'll never be cross if he owns up to something, only if he doesn't. Ask him how he'd feel if you lied to him and tell him how proud of him you would be if he told you the truth, particularly when it was difficult to do so.

Eliminate the word "punishment" from your vocabulary. Good parents simply don't have to use it. The knowledge that you are saddened by his behaviour should be punishment enough.

Readers say...

Lying is normal

You are in for a hard life if you are going to be "in despair" every time you find your son has lied to you!

Children lie – yes, even your little angel. Lying is a life skill and one that he will use often in his everyday adult life. As a man he'll be asked such questions as "Does my bum look big in this?" "How was it for you?" – and the big one "Am I better looking than your ex?" How do you think he'd cope in life if he couldn't tell a few lies!? After all, I bet you tell a few yourself – think Father Christmas, the Tooth Fairy etc. Enjoy your son for what he is – a normal boy.

Julie Kenny, Liverpool

Let him talk

Establish a "I need to talk to you and I need you not to be angry" option that he can use when he is worried about your reaction. You then deal with the breakage or whatever calmly as promised – and can still give a punishment if you feel it necessary.

Hazel Rea, Colchester

He's afraid of you

Your son is lying to you because he is afraid of your reaction if he tells the truth. As his mother, you want to guide him. But beware of setting too high a standard, one he feels that he can never attain and therefore never please you.

When he is a teenager there may be important questions you want answered. He will need to know that you will listen to him and try to understand him. Now is the time to build a warm trusting relationship through listening and talking through problems.

Mary Woodman by email

Don't worry

How your letter takes me back to those days of chewing pieces of meat that I could not swallow so I concealed them behind the radiator, a perfect solution which kept everyone happy. Or my removal of a plastic bag that was protecting a magnolia bud because I thought it must be suffocating. In the process of removing it I destroyed the whole bud. When asked what had happened I said I did not know – then, when pressed further, that my bear had done it. I was still punished, probably mostly because I had lied.

Do not worry that your child is lying to you – there is nothing more fearful than the wrath of a parent. We all lie to some extent, to avoid conflict or protect people's feelings. Things are generally broken by accident, it is hard to eat food that you don't want to eat. Possibly the only way out is to put it in the bin when you are not looking. What does he like eating? Who has not broken something and wished that it hadn't happened?

Caroline Bucknall, London

Be gentle

As a little boy, my anxiety manifested itself in an inability to eat breakfast before school. A lot of food was dispatched behind bookshelves.

My unsuspecting parents were not confronted with any deception, but one day, the truth did come out when the furniture was moved for spring cleaning purposes. I am grateful to this day for my parents' gentle and loving responses when they understood.

Name and address supplied

Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia, Do you ever get over a broken heart? I went out with someone 10 years ago – I'm 30 now – and I can't forget him. I lost my virginity to him, got pregnant (but had an abortion). Eventually, he dropped me. I go out with people now, but always hark back to this one man. Getting in touch might make things worse, but I can't go on like this. Yours sincerely, Lynn

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