CYC-Online 28 MAY 2001
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problem behaviours

Lying and pilfering

More on residential care and treatment from F.G. Lennhoff's work at Shotton Hall

Parents often ask why it is that some children have no difficulty in being honest, while one of their own children brings them so much worry and ill-repute by stealing or lying. “Why does he do this to me?" they cry about his thefts. “Why does he say these dreadful things?" they wail about his lies. And we must ask ourselves what situation is thrust upon this child that he cannot face the truth? What is he avoiding or answering by stealing?

Lying, of course, often has another reason behind it. The imaginative life of a child is rich, and when it is interwoven with truth it is often difficult for the child to see where the real world ends and the fantasy world begins, so that to the parent he seems to be lying deliberately.

Sometimes, too, the parental attitude to lying produces fantastic results. I remember myself being told that if I lied my face would set into my lying expression when the clock struck. The only result was that I took care never to lie when anywhere near a clock! My wife was told that if she lied the words would be written for all the world to see upon her forehead! The result? She lied and lied with redoubled vigour to see whether in fact the dire threat would indeed come true!

Guilt and terror
It is frequently hard for a child to realise that lying is something wrong and by giving them the chance to lie, we can plant tremendous feelings of guilt upon them. Somehow, we must let them learn that lying is something we do not admire, but we will not stop lying by making it a subject of guilt and terror.

A conflict every child experiences is the incorrectness of adults' daily remarks. The rent collector calls, the money is not ready and available and the young child hears his older brother say, at mother’s request, that she is not at home. How often does a child make a nuisance of himself in his mother’s eyes by correcting some statement she made to a neighbour, feeling it is not factual and regarding it as a lie. The child with the happy background soon learns to differentiate between everyday diplomacy (white lies) and falsity (i.e. “real” lies), whereas the child who feels unhappy in his surroundings falls down on this double definition.

To help a child to overcome his lying, one must watch whether this is just a phase or not, and if so, just let it pass without making too much ado. If, however, the child is afraid to tell the truth because of consequences this may have, he must be encouraged and convinced that it is easier to cope with these consequences than to carry about the feeling of guilt his lying creates for a long time.

It is also important not to forget that, often, what we adults would regard as a lie can give us a momentary glimpse into the unconscious life of the child.

Building strength
It is a pity that we adults are unable to react to children's misdemeanours more often by building up a child's confidence in what is good and strong in him, helping him with this encouragement to gain the strength to overcome his weakness, rather than, as so often happens, by making the child feel small and worthless. The rejected child, or the jealous child, may need something to substitute for the love which is, in his view, missing. His pilfering career may start by taking a sweet (something to suck is so often a symbol of lacked love). He may eat it or hide it, feeling superior because he has a secret, and delighted because he has made a material gain.

The adult reaction to such a childish acquisition is typical of threatened security. From sweets it will grow to thefts of money, they fear, and then their particular social position will be in danger! “Once a thief, always a thief”, the saying goes, and so, from this moment, the child is watched with great care and suspicion. He is told he is “naughty” and “wicked” and “not to be trusted”.

The child begins to feel utterly rejected and hopeless. If his act were disapproved of and he himself cherished a little more, he would realise that “taking” is not worth while. But because he himself has been put on the same level as his misdeed, he feels that he is in a worse position than ever and, in time, is seeking satisfaction in even bigger secrets and better material gains. Thus, chastising and criticising him for a minor misdeed has had completely the opposite effect to the one desired. Once the child is beginning to steal regularly and seriously he is often told by worried parents, teachers and other adults: “Do this again and you will be sent away!" The sense of rejection piles up, the desire for revenge increases and the pilfering reaches ever more serious proportions, unless an environment is found where pilfering is not rewarded with rejection, whereupon theft loses its attraction. We try to help pilferers at Shotton Hall by encouraging them, telling them that, with help, their habits can be overcome and that, one day, everything will be all right. They are not punished for their “collecting” and we try to show them that it is the deeds we dislike, not the person who performs them. We ask them not only to restore what they have taken, but also to make some gesture of restitution and apology to the person they have deprived, to make up for the unpleasantness and loss, A boy who has stolen from someone may, for instance, make a picture for that person, or perform a task for him or give him some kind of treat.

The difficulty is, of course, the outside world. Within our own four walls, we can learn to be tolerant and to set things right with correction, teaching, encouragement, an apology or a kind deed. We try to explain that outside our environment people will not be so tolerant, but there are always bound to be difficulties in this connection.

Lennhoff, F.G. (1966) Exceptional Children. London: George Allen and Unwin

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