Ask Abbie: Lies feed off of more lies

Published 11:06 am Saturday, January 25, 2014

Question: My 10-year-old son is lying all the time and it only seems to be getting worse. He will even say his homework is done when I know it’s not. He will look me straight in the face and tell me he’s going to his friend’s house when I know that is not even close to where he is planning to go. I really don’t know when he’s telling the truth and when he isn’t because he acts so smooth and natural regardless. I am scared if this lying doesn’t stop he will grow up and get himself in real trouble.

Answer: Consider the following sequence of behaviors being performed by our character Joe and see if you can determine what Joe is doing.

Joe grabs his already packed gear, opens the appropriate portal and leaves. He closes and secures the interior exit and walks, avoiding any objects obscuring his way. As he approaches the only way to achieve exterior exposure, his progress is halted at another closed portal. Joe opens it, walks through it, and directs his bio-mechanical steps toward the object of his destination. He prepares the apparatus he needs to disarm the object’s security device. Upon arrival at the desired object, he inserts the apparatus into the security device, lifts up on the appropriate lever with his right hand and pulls.

Why is it difficult to determine what Joe is doing? Is Joe born knowing how to perform each of the behaviors listed above or did he acquire this knowledge at some point after birth? The answers to these questions, as well as insight into how each relates to your son’s lying behavior, is provided below in an attempt to help you better understand your son’s behavior and elicit a positive change to that behavior.

All behaviors are either innate or learned. Innate behaviors are hard-wired into the nervous system from conception as a matrix of inherited traits. These behaviors are not affected by the world or the environment in which one lives. Examples include instincts and reflexes. Learned behaviors on the other hand, including your son’s lying and the ones illustrated through Joe, are not present at birth.  They are acquired from and affected by the world or one’s environment.

The more a learned behavior is repeated the less thought it requires and more natural it becomes to perform. Any encountered difficulty while trying to determine Joe’s overall objective in the previous scenario provides proof of this claim. Joe doesn’t give detailed thought to each of the behaviors he must go through in order to leave his house and get into his car, nor do we, and nor does your son when he lies. Use this information as a constant reminder to yourself that your son is not a bad kid. He is simply a child that is performing a learned behavior without thinking.

Both good and bad learned behaviors often develop as a result of positive reinforcement, meaning the behavior was rewarded with something desirable when first performed. Your son’s lying, which was originally established when he unbeknownst to you told a lie and it got him what he wanted, confirms that positive reinforcement can have a negative affect on behavior. It is now up to you to confirm positive reinforcement can also have a positive affect on behavior. One suggested way to accomplish this counter initiative is through the use of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a behavioral modification technique that uses a combination of reinforcement and punishment. The basic concept is simple: reward your son’s good behavior by giving him something he desires and punish his bad behavior by taking away something he desires. The success of this approach relies on your consistency.

Before you put your reinforcement/punishment plan in place, it will be necessary to have an open and honest talk with your son about the plan and exactly what you expect from him with regard to it.  Remind him that you as his parent set the rules regarding his behavior, you are the ultimate authority when it comes to enforcing those rules, you have established the rule that lying is wrong, and you will consistently administer the appropriate punishment to him whenever he breaks any of your rules.

I leave you and your son with this food for thought. Lies feed off of more lies, are always hungry, and will inevitably deplete their in-house supplies of life-sustaining provisions. When they are forced to re-stock they must also leave their houses and get into their cars. It’s a lie’s own insatiable appetite and learned behavior that sits behind the wheel of truth and drives itself into exposure.

ABBIE LONG is a Franklin native and advice columnist for The Tidewater News. Submit your questions to