McNerney: How to Avoid Being the Detective

By Neil McNerney

We, as parents, are often put in the role of being the detective. For instance, you head into your child’s room and find the evidence of candy wrappers in the sock drawer. It might be that you have a family rule that all electronic devices be left in the kitchen after nine in the evening and you notice one missing. Or possibly, while going through your teens pockets during laundry, you pull out a vape pen.

Typically, in such situations, parents will find the suspected child and say something like: “How did these wrappers get in your sock drawer,” or “How did this get in your pocket?” Many kids, when confronted with such evidence, will begin to lie, lie, and lie. Of course, there are those kids that will immediately confess, but most kids will begin by trying to get out of the predicament. When you were a kid, did you immediately confess? I know I didn’t!

Now, we have a double offense. On top of the candy wrappers, he’s also lied. I am going to share with you a somewhat counter-intuitive approach to these situations, and hopefully I can explain why I think it’s the best approach. This is an approach I have used with many families, especially those who have a child that is impulsive.

My suggestion is this: Don’t try to catch your child in a lie. If you know your child did something wrong, start there. For instance, instead of asking how the candy wrappers got in the drawer, start with something like: “I found these wrappers in your drawer. You know you aren’t supposed to have candy in your room.” Instead of asking how the vape pen got in your teen’s pocket, start with: “I found this in your pocket. Let’s talk about this.” Don’t ask if it’s theirs. Of course, it’s theirs. And of course, it’s pretty likely that they will say that they are keeping it for a friend.

I initially learned this technique when I was a new elementary school counselor. My principal, Kay Eckler, was a genius at this technique. A typical meeting with a guilty student would start like this: “I know that you were teasing kids during lunch. What do you think would be an appropriate punishment?” She would state the facts as irrefutable, then pivot to discussing punishments. She would spend as little time as possible giving the student a chance to dig a bigger hole.

Of course, not every student would cooperate with this. Many would deny, deny, deny. Kay would tend to respond with: “We’re not talking about whether you did it or not. I know you did it. We’re now talking about what to do next.”

Using this approach gets you out of being the detective. You already know what happened and who is to blame. Instead of trying to catch your child in a lie, just move to the next step. This will decrease arguments and keep you focused on the more important topic instead of the lying.

Neil McNerney

[Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author of Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out!and The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s.]

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