When it comes to raising responsible kids, I am no expert. But Eric and I do have five kids between us. Call us well-practiced, at least. The key principle we live by? Truthfulness. At our house, our kids hear us say super-annoying things like these:
- We would rather hear bad news than no news at all.
- Do you think I would keep my job if I lied to my boss like you lied to me?
- Tell us the truth and we’ll reduce the punishment. Lie to us, and we’ll find out anyway and raise it.
- If you lied like that to your friends, you’d have no friends.
All of our kids have lied to us about one thing or another. Certainly, young kids go through a phase where lying is common and noncritical, but the stakes rise as they get older.
We reward truth-telling and tackle lying as a “choose to lie, choose the consequences” foul. The worst consequences we can dream up are reserved for lying, and we make sure the kids know about them up front. We tailor the consequences to each child for maximum motivation. Money incentivizes one, so we take away allowance. Socializing is most important to another; no phone calls or playdates. Screens are the pressure point for the third (and I’ll bet you can figure out which one). You get the picture.
Our system works well with our neuro-typical children. Of course, they all believe they’re smarter than us and will never get caught. Especially Clark. Clark’s grasp of reality is tenuous, and he knows with a moral certainty that he is smarter than anyone on the planet.
But we have to remain accountable for involved parenting, for structuring rules that motivate the kids to be accountable. When we show up earlier than the kids expect us—or when they don’t expect us at all—just once or twice, it works wonders on them. Requiring receipts with change, like an employer would, encourages them to be honest. Keeping their friends’ parents’ phone numbers in our mobile phone contacts makes them sit up a little straighter. And friending all their friends on MySpace and Facebook works, too—over time, they forget we’re even there.
All bets are off, though, when it comes to lying and the ADHD child. Lying is a symptom of ADHD, part of the “The only time frame is NOW or HUH????” aspect of their brains. When our son takes his meds, his truth-telling shoots up along with his helpfulness around the house. Without the meds . . . whoa, Nellie. But Clark didn’t start taking medication until he was fifteen. Before then, it was not so pretty.
A few weeks before eighth grade let out for summer, Clark got a note from his theater teacher that said he was failing her class because he hadn’t turned in an assignment. The note required a parent’s signature.
Clark returned the note to his teacher signed “Susie Jackson”—there ain’t no Susie Jackson in his family. The theater teacher emailed me to gently inquire/inform.
Clark earned himself two hours’ outdoor labor every day for the entire summer, and zero tolerance on untruthfulness in any form. Yes, lying is a symptom of ADHD, and we try to guide him with positive reinforcement to be truthful, but handing a forged note to a teacher raised the ante. Unfortunately, only the most present-moment of consequences seem to work, and we soon learned that Clark was not undergoing a radical behavior change.
Case in point: Eric casually mentioned to me one day that Clark needed to bring Eric’s mountain bike home from his father’s house, as it had been gone from our house for two weeks since Clark last borrowed it. If you want to be a stickler about it—always a bad place to go with Clark—the problem was serious. We’d forbidden Clark to use Eric’s bike at all after Clark had left it in the driveway despite repeated instructions to bring it inside. Thieves had already removed Susanne’s bicycle from her father’s driveway, and he lived in a nice neighborhood. Our cars had been jacked twice in our driveway that year, and our neighborhood was even nicer.
Clark said he didn’t take the bicycle. He claimed to have looked for it, and he promised us it wasn’t in his dad’s garage.
Well, we knew better than to leave it at that.
So we asked Susanne: “When was the last time you saw Eric’s bike, and where?”
Susanne innately knows where everything is, partly due to a special sixth sense, partly due to hyperawareness, and partly because she is a nosey little devil. Without hesitation, Susanne said, “Clark rode it over to Dad’s.”
Hmmmm, Susanne never erred about where things were, and she had no reason to think her answer would achieve the coveted result of getting Clark in trouble. It sounded a lot like the truth.
Back to Clark . . . who now admitted, “Yes, I took the bike. But I lost it.”
Lost it? LOST IT?
He swore he had no idea how he lost it or where he was when he noticed he lost it. ARGH.
So, were we to punish him for lying? Or “reward” him by withholding punishment because our unmedicated ADHD child chose truthfulness on the second go-round? We aren’t fast learners, so we decided just to have him work off the value of the bike in more outside labor over the summer. This equated to thirty-five hours of outside labor in the Houston heat. Added to his penalty for the falsified note, he now had FOUR hours of outside labor a day. He agreed to this as fair and got started for the day.
His three parents (mom, stepdad, dad) wrung their hands and worried, but ultimately decided that this sedentary computer-gaming boy needed the exercise, and both father and stepfather reported that they spent their summer days at Clark’s age performing manual labor outside for their fathers. So, no cruel and unusual punishment. As far as cruel and unusual was concerned, I was actually more worried about the impact on the adults who would have to oversee the forced labor. This was going to ruin my summer.
But we are not yet through with this tale of woe. Oh no, not yet.
We still aimed to find this bicycle and bring it back to its mother ship—our athletic family’s game room houses seven bicycles on wall hooks, looking sorta like the pods in Alien. Clark’s dad offered continued help on his end.
Thennnnnnnn, days later, Clark called from his father’s house. “Welllllllll Mom, I looked harder in Dad’s garage and found it.”
OK, how big, you may ask, is this garage? Is it like the multi-acre museum/lab in Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, or is it just a standard garage? Is it cluttered like Eric’s great-aunt’s house was after forty years of collecting Time magazines and Star Trek action figurines, or more like most people’s messy but functional garages? The answer: standard two-car garage, super-neat.
“OOOOKKKKK,” I said to prompt him to speak further.
Before I could even finish getting the word out, I heard Edward in the background. “Clark, own it.”
And Clark said, “Uh, I left it at school and Dad found it chained to the bike rack up there.”
School had been out for two weeks at this point!! The dreaded untruthfulness had raised its head again, while zero tolerance was in force. Why would any child agree to thirty-five hours of outside labor in the summer in Houston rather than just going to look for the darn bike? His dad ultimately was the one who found it! This was quintessential Clark, and quintessential ADHD.
For the last lie, we canceled Clark’s computer camp that week. That caused a 6.7-magnitude Clarkquake. A much more immediate consequence, a much bigger impact. See Pamela learn, see Pamela try again.
For the sake of peace, we sent him to see my parents for a few weeks to cool off. He visited them on their farm for two weeks and the penalty remained in force there. During week one, he assisted my father, and it was a great experience for them both. That’s Clark learning to drive the big tractor, which he used to cut fields of grass and mow the four-wheeler path. The next week, he helped his grandmother pack up the home of his great-grandmother. His paternal grandfather came to visit him in Houston when Clark returned, and Clark assisted him for an additional two weeks. The work and the bonding made for great experiences for everyone, grandparents and grandchild alike. That got us through half the summer. The rest is a blur, but the yard sure looked nice.
Do our kids lie to us? Well, I once was a kid, and folks, I lied. I assume our kids get away with lying to us, too. We do the best we can, though, and they’re awfully good kids, even that darn Clark.