The Reassuring Truth About Lies
Kids gonna fib. It doesn't mean they're sociopaths.
I’m giving a handful of talks this summer (if you want to hire me, please contact me!), and one issue I’m frequently asked to cover is children’s lying. I can’t say I’m surprised; I imagine every parent has had the experience of their kid lying to them and then has wondered what the hell it means and how to respond.
Well, I have some good news on this front: Lying doesn’t mean anything other than that your kid’s brain is developing normally. “The ability to lie is actually seen as a developmental milestone,” explained Annie Tao, a clinical psychologist who treats children and teens at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, when I spoke to her recently for a story I wrote for The New York Times. I covered lying extensively in my book, but I’m going to give you some basics here.
First, I mean it when I say that lying is an impressive cognitive feat. It requires a skill known as “theory of mind,” which is the ability to recognize that other people can have different beliefs or feelings from you. (One study found that after initially honest 3-year-olds were taught to improve their theory of mind skills, they immediately began lying.) Dishonesty 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 answer any follow-up questions in a way that’s consistent with his story — no small accomplishment. Lying can also be a sign that your kid is particularly empathetic.
So kids who lie are demonstrating important cognitive and emotional skills. But paradoxically, they also lie in part because they don’t have great cognitive and emotional skills. Children are reactive and impulsive — they struggle with inhibitory control, one aspect of executive function — which is why, despite your clear instructions not to, they will glue your dog’s paw to his ear to see what happens. Then, they’ll blame the glue shenanigans on their sibling to avoid getting punished. In other words, kids lie because they can’t help but defy you, and they don’t want to suffer the consequences.
There are, of course, several different types of lies, and research suggests that each kind develops differently. The first kind of lie that kids tell is the type that keeps them out of trouble, usually to cover up transgressions, such as those involving dogs and glue. Kids also lie for personal gain, like when they tell their friends they are strong enough to pick up a car or that they always get to eat cookies for dinner. These are called “instrumental” lies, and because they are slightly more sophisticated than the hiding-transgressions lies, they often appear a little later, in the preschool years.
And then there are the “white” lies, which kids tell to avoid hurting other people’s feelings. These are the lies that are often prompted by feelings of empathy. Research suggests that while self-serving lies tend to become less and less common as kids get older, white lies become more and more common with age. White lies require rather complex thinking skills, because kids have to understand another person’s state of mind and know what they need to do to shape that state of mind. They have to know that although they definitely didn’t want wool socks for Christmas, Granny’s feelings would be hurt if they actually told her that.
And of course, kids learn how to lie because parents do it all the time — often, in fact, we encourage white lies. A few years ago during holiday break, my husband and I decided to take the kids to an indoor trampoline park. But when we woke up that morning, our daughter had a fever. My husband told our son that he would still take him, but that it would be best to tell his sister they were just running errands, lest she feel sad for missing out. My son was shocked by the suggestion. “But, Daddy, that’s a lie!” he said, mortified. My husband felt sheepish afterwards, but I’m pretty sure they still told the fib (or at least, told a lie of omission). The things you’ll do to avoid a tantrum.
Still, even though lying is a sign that your kid is normal, you probably don’t want them deceiving you all the time. Here are three research-backed strategies you can use to encourage your kids to be honest when they need to be.
1. Model the behavior you want to see, and reward honesty.
Kids do as we do, not as we say. You might be thinking to yourself I never lie in front of my kids! But in all honesty (ha), you probably do. Maybe they’ve seen you fib to a telemarketer that they have the wrong number, or tell your friend that you absolutely loved her woefully under-salted guacamole. It isn’t always bad when kids see you fib, but it’s worth having a conversation with your child about different kinds of lies — why it’s OK to tell certain kinds of lies (to protect other people’s feelings, say), but not other kinds of lies (such as for personal gain). But again, be sure you practice what you preach, because parents often lie for personal gain in front of their kids, too — and even encourage their kids to do the same. If you’ve ever told your child to fib about his age to get into the museum for free, you’re essentially telling him that lying for personal gain is OK.
Research confirms that kids lie more after they’ve seen adults lie. (Also, kids over the age of 7 are quite good at detecting when people are not telling the truth.) In a 2014 study, University of California psychologists performed an experiment with nearly 200 kids aged 3 to 7. First, to half the kids, an experimenter told a lie. She said, “There is a huge bowl of candy in the next room, want to go get some?” Then, once in that room, she confessed she had been fibbing. The other half of the kids were told there was a fun game in the next room, with no mention of candy and no lie.
Next, the experimenter asked each of the kids to play a guessing game. The kids had their backs to her while she played the sound of a toy; then the kids were asked to guess what the toy was. Right after playing the sound but before the kids were given the chance to guess, the experimenter said she had to run out to grab something and told each child not to peek at the toy while she was gone. When she left, a hidden camera watched to see what the children did, and the experimenter returned a minute later. She asked the children if they peeked at the toy while she was gone, then asked them to guess what the toy was.
The researchers found that school-aged kids in particular — those between the ages of 5 and 7 — who had been lied to at the beginning of the experiment were more likely to peek, and also much more likely to lie about having peeked, than school-aged kids who had not been deceived. “Parents and teachers sometimes use lying as a way of controlling children’s behavior or emotions,” the authors wrote, and “this strategy may have deleterious effects on children’s own honesty.”
Kids are also more likely to lie if they observe an adult lying and getting away with it, even if that adult wasn’t lying to them. In a 2019 study, kids were split into groups and watched researchers do various things. Some of the kids watched researchers tell lies to their friends, while other kids watched the adults fess up and tell the truth to a friend about something bad that had happened. Then, some kids saw the researchers being yelled at for lying or for telling the truth. Other kids saw the researchers get rewarded for lying or for telling the truth.
In the next part of the study, the kids were tested to see if they would lie after they peeked at a toy they were told not to look at. The researchers found that the kids who saw the adult lie and get away with it — and those who saw the adult tell the truth and then get yelled at — were much more likely to lie. (The various conditions didn’t affect whether or not the kids peeked at the toy, but they did affect whether the kids lied about peeking.) The kids decided whether or not to lie based on what the kids saw the adults do — and how those choices were rewarded or punished.
These findings have obvious implications for how we should respond to our kids when they tell the truth, even if that truth is unsavory: We should praise or thank them for being honest, even when we are unhappy about every other aspect of the situation. A few years ago, my son accidentally broke a night light he had been playing with at a friend’s house, and he confessed to it right away. Although I was upset about the broken light, I knew it was an opportunity to reinforce the virtues of honesty, so I thanked him for telling me the truth and told him it was OK. Later on, after he and I had calmed down, I talked with him more about the importance of also respecting other people’s property, and that it would have been better if he hadn’t played with the light in the first place. But that initial reaction — in which I rewarded his honesty — was important and, hopefully, sent him the message that honesty is the best path forward. Telling the truth can be hard — and it’s far harder when we are immediately punished for it.
2. React to lies calmly, and separate lies from the transgressions they were meant to hide.
When you catch your child in a lie, try to stay calm. Point out what they’ve done and explain to them why you think it’s important that they tell the truth. Talk about how it’s important for family members to trust one another, and that honesty is essential for strong, loving relationships.
It’s also crucial, as mentioned earlier, to not to get too mad at your kid when they do tell the truth. Parents very often say things like I promise I won’t get mad if you just say what happened, and then what do we do? We immediately get mad at them for telling us what happened. This teaches kids that truth-telling gets punished; they’d be better off lying.
When our kids lie to cover their butts, we should also separate the lie from the misdeed. Address the fact that your kid broke your vase, and address the fact that they lied about it — but don’t conflate the two, because they’re different. Talk to your child about these two transgressions individually, and perhaps at separate times. And again: If your kid broke the vase but was honest about it, you should, hard as it may be, commend them for their truth-telling even though you’re ready to kill them about the broken vase.
It may also help to frame your discussions around the concept of honesty rather than the concept of dishonesty. It sounds arbitrary, but hear me out: Researchers have tested how different kinds of stories affect kids’ tendencies to lie. They compared 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, and The Boy Who Cried Wolf, which warns against lying by highlighting its negative consequences. They found that kids learn more when they’re taught about the benefits of honesty than when they are warned about the downsides of dishonesty.
If you’re facing a situation in which you really need your child to be honest, research suggests that asking your kid to promise to tell the truth might help. In one study, 8- to 16-year-olds who had initially lied about cheating on a test, but were then asked to promise to tell the truth about it, admitted to having cheated. In another study, 3- to 7-year-olds who were asked to promise to tell the truth were much more likely to admit they had peeked at a toy than kids who had not been asked to make such a promise.
When your kids are old enough to understand, you’ll also want to color your discussions about honesty a tad, because society values honesty as well as politeness, and the two can contradict. Take, for example, mealtime. “Why is it that you don’t blurt out ‘this is the most disgusting pie I’ve ever had’ at somebody’s house?” asked Angela Crossman, a developmental psychologist at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, when I interviewed her a while back. “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?” She suggested that parents “talk about the importance of honesty, but caution about saying things that are mean.”
3. Don’t punish your kids too harshly.
I already said it’s helpful to keep calm in response to lies. Ideally, your reaction should also include not punishing kids too harshly for their dishonesty (or for other things, for that matter). That’s because, when we punish, kids can actually start lying more. Kids figure out they only get punished if they are caught — so they may continue to lie to avoid our harsh consequences.
A 2011 study illustrated this phenomenon in an alarming way. Researchers recruited 84 preschoolers, half of whom attended a school that harshly punished students for misbehavior and half of whom attended a school that did not punish so harshly. In one-on-one sessions, the researchers played another game in which they were told not to peek at a toy and later asked if they had peeked.
The kids in both schools were equally likely to peek — about 80 percent of them did — but the researchers found stark differences in whether the children then lied about peeking. Only 56 percent of the kids attending the non-punitive school lied about having peeked, but a shocking 94 percent of the kids attending the punitive school lied. The kids attending the punitive school were also better liars, in that even though they knew what the toy was since they had peeked at it, they were clever enough to guess incorrectly at first so as not to arouse the experimenter’s suspicions. Other research has also found links between harsh punishments in general — not just in response to lying — and children’s dishonesty. (This doesn’t mean, by the way, that you should never use natural or logical consequences. Check out my newsletter on the science on consequences versus punishments.)
Put another way, parents (and teachers) need to be careful that they don’t punish lies, or other transgressions, so harshly that they actually end up encouraging kids to learn how to lie more effectively. When our kids are scared of how we will react to their unsavory behavior, they will be incentivized to try to hide it from us. And we should remind ourselves that dishonesty is normal, and that just because our kids might lie from time to time doesn’t mean we’re bad parents — or that they’re bad kids.
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