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Vol. 3, No. 1 • Fall 1998

Response to Shane: Children Who Lie and Steal
by Katharine Leslie

Dirty underwear hidden in closets, food stolen in the night and hidden under pillows, toys that just appear from nowhere, big brown eyes that swear "it wasn't me" or a child voice saying "So what, I don't care!"

Sound familiar? We live with these children. They lie, manipulate with sweet kisses and charming words, and perplex us with mood swings and angry fits. Parenting these children is tricky business, in part because we love them so, in part because these behaviors can make them so unlovable.

We know they are suffering but don’t always know how to help them. One thing we are sure of, though—providing “a loving home” is not enough to change these behaviors.

I know about this because I am a psychologist who specializes in child development, parenting behavior, and parent/child relationships. But I also have hands on experience; I am a foster parent, and I have two adopted children of my own.

Why do our children act this way, and why isn’t a loving home enough? In part because they may have had to lie and cheat to survive. Once they become integral parts of their lives, these adaptive skills are highly resistant to change.

Another reason is that many of our children suffer from attachment problems. Whether your child had a bonded relationship with a birth parent that was then severed, or your child was never bonded to anyone, they share a similar wound, and therefore similar responses. They lie, sneak, cheat, hate, charm, trick, manipulate, hurt before being hurt, trust no one at any cost, and try to control every situation. Love no one.

As I talk about possible interventions for these behaviors, keep in mind these four things:

  1. Every child is different, what works for one child may not work for another. Furthermore, what works at one time for a particular child may not work at another time with the same child.
  2. You may have to vary the suggested interventions depending upon whether your child is in your home for the short term or the long term, whether you intend on adopting or not, and the age or stage of the child.
  3. Notice that I use the word intervention, not “solution.” A child cannot experience what our children have suffered and walk away unscathed. We have to face facts; we are not miracle workers, we cannot save every child. Sometimes we just have to accept “good enough.”
  4. I am in this with you, struggling day by day, reassessing, analyzing, regrouping, trying new strategies, feeling sure on most days and insecure on others. The truth of the matter is there are no sure-to-work interventions and there is only one solution—prevention.

My recommendation for dealing with lying and sneaky behaviors is threefold:

1) preventive strategies,
2) punishment in the form of restitution, and
3) the teaching of caring.

Prevention, in this case, means monitoring your child as much as possible just as you would a toddler. We never leave toddlers unsupervised because they can make bad choices. The same could be said for our children. As they attempt to figure out their new world they act out on their anger, fear, and frustration. They may want to cause others pain just to observe their reactions, or to play the role of “taker” instead of the “taken.” Being there to supervise, monitor, and correct your child’s behavior can help him or her refigure the world for what it is now—safe and predictable. Of course that means you must be consistent and reliable. You must model honesty and truth at all times. If you tell white lies or act furtively your foster child will be the first to recognize and mimic your behavior.

When lying takes place, don’t confront your child with whether he did it, just assume that he did. If you ask whether the child has stolen you only set him or her up for more lies. Accept that it is true; a child who lies has not earned the benefit of the doubt.

For example, if your child comes home with an unknown toy, take the child with the toy back to the friend’s house. Make him give back the toy and apologize. Yes, this may humiliate and embarrass him, and hopefully he will feel shame and guilt; appropriate shame and guilt are the cornerstones of a civilized, humane, moral society. He needs to understand that because he hurts he does not have the right to hurt others. You need to understand that one of the reasons our children steal is to fill up the emptiness they feel—“If I have what that child has then I will be happy.”

If your child continues to steal or behave badly towards others then he must pay restitution—he has to do something nice for the person he hurt, including a parent. Let the restitution fit the crime, if possible. If he breaks a toy have him give up one of his toys (I know you bought it with your money—he can pay you back by doing extra chores). Doing another person’s chores or nurturing the other person (e.g., giving a back rub, *making breakfast) are good paybacks. Restitution is an especially effective technique because not only does it demonstrate consequences for behavior, but the act of doing something nice for others can begin to replace the need to hurt others or to act selfishly.

Teaching Caring
This of course leads us to part three of the plan—teaching caring. What prevents most of us from lying, stealing, and cheating? We care about others. Caring about others starts in infancy; we learn to care about others because we were cared for. As we mature, this caring leads to recognizing the rights of others and having empathy for their experiences, all of which act as major deterrents to antisocial behaviors.

Many foster children, however, missed out on this early nurturing and as a result do not demonstrate moral behavior. Therefore, a good long-term plan for decreasing lying, stealing, and cheating behaviors is increasing caring behaviors. But how do you teach someone to care who perhaps was not cared for, or who may not want to care or know how to care?

To model caring this late in the game is not enough. Many of our children use us without giving in return; they will not care about us simply because we care about them. Therefore we must teach caring by explicitly pointing it out. Caring behavior is typically everything you do that is taken for granted (e.g., cooking for the family, doing laundry, shopping, working, playing games). Instead of talking about acting good or bad, talk about acting caring or not caring.

Notice I’m not talking about love. Expecting love should be reserved for a permanent family. However, regardless of whether your child remains with you or not, he or she needs to care about others. Behaviors of each family member should be acknowledged as caring or not caring, especially the foster child’s behavior. Additionally, he or she should know that acting caring or not caring is each family member’s choice. After all, you may not want to do the laundry, but you choose to do it because that is the caring thing to do.

There are other interventions that may work as well, but because of limited space I couldn’t mention them all. Also, it is very possible that the suggested plan will not work for children with more extreme attachment problems. You will recognize these children. They deliberately disobey explicit and consistent family rules because they know how important they are to you. Punishments are meaningless and the effects of rewards do not last or generalize to other situations. The more you expect these children to love and care the worse they act. These are extremely disturbed children who may benefit from intense reattachment therapies.

Katherine Leslie, Ph.D., is co-owner and senior consultant for Brand New Day Consultants, a team of experts offering education, and counseling on child development, parenting, family life, and communication to homes, schools, organizations, and businesses. E-mail: [email protected]

Copyright © 2000 Jordan Institute for Families