When children lie - a sign that they're developing important psychological skills

After having many interesting conversations with children and their parents recently, I thought I would share some articles on lying that might help inform adults' responses to children's lies.  When viewed developmentally, a child's ability to lie demonstrates developing executive functioning skills and theory of mind.  Please read the two articles below ....


MAY 16 2014 10:47 AM

Children Lie

Parents should teach them not to. But the truth is fibbing is normal.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker
Afew weeks ago, as part of his normal evening ritual, my almost 3-year-old son used the potty, brushed his teeth, and climbed into bed. As we were saying our night-nights, he interjected: “Mommy, I need to use the potty.” It had been about six minutes since he’d gone. I suspected he was trying out a new bedtime stall tactic, but I couldn’t not let him try. He sat on the potty. We waited. Then: “I don’t need to go.”
I had just caught my son in a lie—the first I’d ever noticed. The next night, it was the same
thing all over again. I had no idea what to do.

So I started reading the research on childhood lying. Turns out there’s a lot of it, because by studying how and when children lie, psychologists can glean new insights into psychological development. I, of course, was more interested in the practical applications: How do I keep my kid from turning into a sociopath? Dozens of research papers and several phone calls later, I’ve learned that not only is lying completely normal in kids, it’s actually a sign of healthy development. And yes, there are things parents can do to foster honesty in their kids—things that I haven’t been getting exactly right.
If your kid has been lying, “that’s very, very normal,” explains Kang Lee, a developmental psychologist at the University of Toronto who has been studying lying in children for 20 years. Generally, kids start to lie by around the age of 2½ or 3, usually to cover up transgressions. In a classic 1989 study, researchers at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey took individual 3-year-olds into a room equipped with a hidden video camera and a one-way mirror and sat them facing away from a table. The researchers told the children they were going to put a surprise toy on the table and instructed the kids not to look at it. Then the researchers left the room. They returned either once the children had peeked at the toy (most did) or after five minutes had passed, and asked the kids whether they had looked. A whooping 38 percent of the kids who had snuck a peek lied, assuring the researchers that they hadn’t seen the toy. In a similarly designed 2002 study co-authored by Lee, 54 percent of 3-year-olds lied about peeking, whereas more than three-quarters of kids aged 4 to 7 did.
When kids lie, it’s not a sign that they’re on the road to delinquency—it’s a sign that they are developing important psychological skills. One is “theory of mind,” the ability to recognize that other people can have different beliefs or feelings from you. In order to lie, your child has to realize that although he knows full well that he broke your vase, you do not. Lying also requires “executive function,” a complex set of skills that includes working memory, inhibitory control, and planning capabilities. Your kid has to hide the truth, plan up an alternate reality, tell you about it, and remember it. Good job, kid!
So kids who lie are demonstrating important cognitive skills. But paradoxically, they also lie in part because they don’t have great cognitive skills. As I’ve written about before, children are emotional and impulsive—they struggle a lot with inhibitory control, one aspect of executive function—which is why, despite your clear instructions not to, they will continue to use their forks as drumsticks and hit their siblings. Then, to cover up their mistakes, they’ll lie to avoid getting punished. In other words, kids lie a lot in part because they can’t help but defy you a lot, and they don’t want to suffer the consequences. Can you blame them?

One easy thing we can do to keep our kids from lying is to avoid setting them up to do so. If you know full well Nathan ate the last cookie, you don’t need to challenge him with Nathan, did you eat the last cookie? That’s just asking him to fib—he can sense trouble is just around the corner, and he wants more than anything to avoid it. Instead, say something like, “I know you ate the last cookie, and now you're not going to have room for dinner, and unfortunately the consequence is going to be that you have no cookies tomorrow,” suggests Angela Crossman, a developmental psychologist at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. (If you do desperately need to extract the truth out of your child, ask him beforehand to promise you that he will tell you the truth. It may sound silly, but it helps: One study found that 3- to 7-year olds were 16 percent less likely to lie after promising to be honest. Suckers.)
Another thing you should absolutely not do, Lee says, is to tell your child that you won’t get mad at him if he tells you the truth, and then get mad at him for telling you the truth. Parents do this all the time, he says, and it teaches kids that truth-telling gets punished, that they’d be better off lying. “You really have to live up to your end of the bargain—if your child tells the truth, then you say ‘that’s great,’ and just ignore the bad behavior, regardless of how bad it is,” Lee says. (If you know you can’t follow through—for instance, if the transgression you’re asking about is really terrible—don’t make such a promise in the first place.)
OK, but when you do catch your kid in a lie, what should you do? First, because lies often go hand-in-hand with misdeeds, you need to separate the two in your mind. You have to address the fact that your kid broke the TV, and you also need to address the fact that she lied about it—but don’t conflate the two, because they’re different. If your kid broke the TV but was actually honest about it, you should, hard as it may be, commend her for her truth-telling even though you’re ready to kill her about the TV. “Say, ‘I'm glad you told me that it was you who broke the TV, but I'm still really concerned,” says Victoria Talwar, a developmental psychologist at McGill University who studies lying in children and frequently collaborates with Lee.
Simply put, the best way to address a child’s lie is calmly. Use the moment to talk to him about the importance of honesty. “Point out what he has just done, and tell him what you expect him to do, which is to tell the truth regardless—and tell him why it’s important to tell the truth,” Lee says. Explain the importance of trust. Lee cautions against punishing kids—particularly young preschoolers—for lying, because they often do not fully understand the concept of honesty. Punishing a kid for lying can also backfire, because kids understand that they only get punished if they are caughtlying, so they may continue to lie but simply be more careful about it.

Instead, consider praising them when they are honest and repeatedly stressing the virtues of honesty. When Lee and his colleagues tested how well various stories curbed kids’ tendencies to lie, they found that the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree, in which Washington confesses to chopping down his father’s tree and is commended for doing so, was far more effective than The Boy Who Cried Wolf, which warns against lying by highlighting its negative consequences. Also, in general, research suggests that children raised in punitive authoritarian environments—in which they are harshly punished either verbally or physically—are more likely to lie than are children who are punished for transgressions more gently, for instance with time-outs or scolding. So strict, punitive parenting practices are not necessarily the best approach to raising honest children.
All this said, don’t be afraid to discuss and even employ natural consequences to deter your kids from lying. Tell little Susie that if she keeps lying, you may not always be inclined to believe what she says. And if your kid, like mine, lies about needing to use the potty to stall bedtime, tell him he gets one chance to go potty before bedtime, at whatever time he chooses; if he plays the potty card when he doesn’t really need to go, he may end up uncomfortable—or even soil himself—later on, which may be the very lesson he needs. (Unless you are in the middle of potty training—then all bets are off.)
What should you do if you think your kids’ lies are a sign of a deeper problem? Excessive lying, particularly in older kids, can be a symptom of conduct disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or oppositional defiant disorder, so if you’re worried, talk to your pediatrician or consult a child psychologist. Generally speaking, Lee says, kids who have behavioral problems tend to not only be frequent liars, but also poor liars. (Little kids are generally bad liars—particularly when they’re asked follow-up questions—but by the time they’re 7 or 8, they get pretty good.)

When your kids are old enough to understand, you’ll also want to color your discussions about honesty a tad, because our society values honesty as well as politeness, and the two can contradict. “Why is it that you don't blurt out ‘this is the most disgusting pie I've ever had’ at somebody's house? What are the ways that you can handle these situations where you're still being an honest person as much as possible, but you're also not being a rude or disrespectful or ungrateful person?” Crossman explains. “Talk about the importance of honesty, but caution about saying things that are mean.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly: Don’t expect your kids to be honest if you’re not. “If you are sending your kids the message that truth is really important, but they see you telling occasional small fibs to get out of things, they will see lying as a strategy they can use,” Talwar says. Adults lie so frequently—to kids, friends, our own parents, telemarketers—that we almost don’t even notice it. But our kids certainly do, and they love to emulate us. So the next time you catch your kid in a fib, ask yourself whether he may have learned it from you, and then consider giving him a bit of a break. After all,  Talwar says, “It's a tricky thing to be honest all the time.”

Learning to fib is an important step in your child’s development.



Hover over each Learning Benefit below for a detailed explanation.
Social Skills
Three-year-old Sally was playing happily in the kitchen while her mother cleaned up the dinner dishes. As Sally's mom turned to collect another plate from the table, she noticed a puddle on the floor under Sally's feet. "Sally, honey, did you wet your pants?" Sally shook her head and said, "My shoes did it."

Clearly, Sally has told her mother a lie. Like most parents, you might feel shocked — angry, hurt, or even betrayed — when you first discover your child has lied. But if you can step back and view lying as a part of your child's emotional and intellectual development, you will find that telling lies doesn't condemn your child to a life of betrayal or serious behavior problems. In fact, recent research has shown that lying plays a positive role in normal development. Essential human skills — independence, perspective taking, and emotional control — are the same skills that enable children to lie.

Conventional wisdom long held that young children were not capable of lying. More recent research, however, has found that most children learn to lie effectively between the ages of 2 and 4. The first successful lie can be pegged as a developmental achievement because it marks the child's discovery that her mind and thinking are separate from her parents'. This same understanding is marked by the discovery of the word no, which helps young children delineate the boundaries between their own desires, thoughts, and feelings, and those of others.

Like everything else, children learn to lie from the people around them. Parents and teachers show children in subtle — and not so subtle — ways to suppress their honesty. "Look at that funny man," a child will yell. "I don't like this," she'll say of Grandma's gift. "Yuck," he says about food that doesn't taste good. Adults slowly teach children that this kind of honesty is not always welcome — that there is a fine line between telling the truth and not hurting other people. Children also observe active lying by the adults in their lives. (One research study found that adults admit to lying an average of 13 times a week!) We all tell lies of convenience, and our children watch and learn — but not always so literally.
How Lying Evolves
From about age 4 on, children lie for many of the same reasons adults do: to avoid punishment, to gain an advantage, to protect against an unwanted consequence, and even to boost self-esteem. Youngsters, like adults, sometimes lie to demonstrate power, to maintain privacy, or to protect a friend. When a child lies, she is essentially trying to change a situation, to reconstruct things the way she wants them to be.

There is a developmental progression to lying. At the first level, the child wants to achieve some goal or reward by saying something that she knows or believes to be false. Her intention may be to affect the listener's behavior — to avoid punishment or receive a reward, for example.

Consider the following study: A number of 2- and 3-year-old children were seated in an empty room and told not to peek at a toy placed on table behind them. The researcher left and returned to the room five minutes later. Ninety percent of the children looked at the toy, and the majority — about two-thirds — concealed their peeking. One-third lied outright, saying they did not peek, while the other third didn't answer the question, pretending not to hear it.

At this age, wishes and imagination often get in the way of what is real. Sometimes a 3 year old will start to tell a story, and you will hear it get out of hand as he adds bits and pieces to fit the ideas in his head. Lies at this age might succeed, but 3 year olds are generally poor liars because they fail to lie appropriately. They do not consider that their listener will actually think about either the statement or their intention. As a result, they tend to lie at the wrong time or place, or neglect to think about other important facts, such as covering their tracks to conceal the deception.

By age 4, children know the difference between telling the truth and lying — and they know it's wrong to lie. So, generally, they're truthful, and when they're not it's obvious. But they also become more proficient at lying because they're more cognitively capable of taking into account the listener's belief of their statement.

When researchers conducted the same toy study with children aged 4 to 6, they found that older children were better at resisting the temptation to peek. But those who did look were more apt to lie about it. Videotapes showed another important difference in the older children: After they looked at the toy, they didn't look very happy. They did, however, change their facial expression once the researcher came back — they literally "put on a face."

By age 4 or 5, children understand the effects of a false message on a listener's mind, recognizing that the listener will interpret and evaluate a statement in the light of their existing knowledge. But they still have trouble knowing whether a listener thinks a statement is true. As one 5 year old said, "You should never tell a lie because the brains inside grown-ups' heads are so smart they always find out."

An even more sophisticated level of lying emerges between the ages of 6 and 8. Children can now understand something like, "John wants his mother to think he feels bad about Grandma not coming to visit." At this stage, it's not just the content of the lie, but the motive or attitude of the speaker that can be doubted, as well.

Looking ahead to ages 10 and 11, most children become able liars. The big difference at this stage is that parents and teachers are no longer seduced by the sound of a child's voice, the innocent look on her face, or an outlandish alibi.
When Your Child Lies
When your young child tells a lie, remind yourself that this is not a crisis of morality. It doesn't help to get outraged. Telling a lie is your child's way of getting what he wants, which is normal and healthy. It also doesn't help to investigate his story like a detective. This makes the child feel that he can't be trusted, or that he is devious. Even when a child is 4 to 5 years or older, and understands what truth is, you still may or may not get the truth if you ask for it directly. If you do get "the truth," however, it was because you made him tell. After he admits he licked the chocolate off your cake, what have you gained? You did not encourage him to take responsibility for his own behavior. In fact, pressuring your child can cause him to tell less than the truth the next time.

Helping your child develop morality and responsibility for his actions over the long haul is the goal. While lying is a normal aspect of growing up, that does not mean it should be dismissed. Here are some strategies that you can use to help your child develop a better understanding of truthfulness:
  • Model the behavior you expect to see in your child. This sounds obvious, but it involves monitoring when and how you lie — not an easy task. If we want to foster a trusting, self-regulating child who cares about his own welfare and that of others, we have to do it the hard way: by being trusting, self-regulating, and respectful adults.
  • Cool down before doing anything. The calmer you are, the better you'll communicate. The first step is to convey the message that a behavior — stealing, for example — is wrong. Then, address why your child lied about what he did. Remember that some children will lie to avoid anger even more than to avoid punishment.
  • Use consequences that promote the development of conscience. Consider a kindergartener who has discarded several notes sent home by the teacher requesting a meeting. His father hasn't received any notes, and is shocked when the teacher calls. His child denies any knowledge of the notes. At this point, although we can imagine feeling emotions such as anger, despair, and resentment, it is best to stay calm. A logical short-term consequence might be to require the child to inform his teacher that he hasn't been giving the notes to his parents and that he is sorry. He can then ask for another note to bring home.
  • Consider the goal of your child's lie. In the case of our kindergartener, was he trying to avoid punishment? Perhaps he was frightened by the consequences of what he did and of making a mistake. What might he be feeling? Anxious, guilty, ashamed, scared? There is always a motive and meaning for what children tell us. It won't hurt to ask yourself what your child is gaining by telling a lie.
  • Point out the logical consequences of lying. Young children are very interested in the story of the boy who cried wolf so often that, when the boy really needed help, nobody paid any attention. When a child is able to change her story and tell you the truth, let her know that you are glad she was able to do so. This will reinforce her confidence and make it easier for her to tell the truth the next time.
In the long run, the most effective solution is to try to discern what message the child is trying to convey with his lie. Occasionally, lying is a sign that a child needs more attention or, perhaps, stronger limits on daily activities. Longer-term strategies may be to create structured routines (for example, going to bed on time after a favorite read-aloud, or a limited amount of television time) to increase his sense of security within the family.

In the words of early childhood pioneer Erik Erikson, "It's a long haul bringing up our children to be good; you have to keep doing that — bring them up — and that means bringing things up with them: Asking, telling, sounding them out, sounding off yourself — finding, through experience, your own words, your own way of putting them together. You have to learn where you stand, and make sure your kids learn [where you stand], understand why, and soon, you hope, they'll be standing there beside you, with you."