Our Gender, Ourselves

The changing American family

Why Kids Lie

Any lies kids tell, should not go unacknowledged.

Eight-year-old Henry lied about everything. It absolutely infuriated his mother, Sophie, if mostly because she couldn't figure out why he was doing it. Some of the lies she understood, as they'd clearly been issued to avoid mild trouble or reprimand, like the lies about whether he'd made his bed or eaten his lunch. But he'd also tell very obvious lies from which he had nothing to gain, like that it was sunny outside when it wasn't, or that 2 plus 2 was 5. What bothered Sophie most about the lies was how adamantly Henry would insist they weren't lies, even as Sophie pointed out the rain pouring down outside. "It's not like I'd have preferred if he was a good liar," Sophie told me, "but it was confusing that he chose to lie about things he a) didn't need to lie about and b) that were so easy to call him out on. I'd be like, you're eight. You know that 2 plus 2 is 4. You can see it's raining outside. You can't even defend these lies a little bit. Why are you telling them?"

It's entirely normal for kids to experiment with lying, starting at an early age -- sometimes as early as two -- and escalating until 12, the age of greatest deceit, according to various studies conducted by Canadian researcher Kang Lee. Some lying is "healthy" lying -- fantasy and imagination at work, like a four-year-old's lie about her teddy bear telling her a secret. Other lies are "white lies" told to benefit another or to avoid hurting someone's feelings, and which tend to start around age six. Most lies kids -- and, for that matter, adults -- tell are more self-serving, however, and told to avoid trouble or punishment, look better in the eyes of others, or get (or get away with) something. This sort of lie from a three-year-old might come out as "someone else" spilling the apple juice on the living room rug. A 10-year-old who's insecure about his math abilities might lie about having already done his math homework.

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This sort of lie can also show up, especially in boys, as mischief making. Seven-year-old Bobby always wanted to know "what would happen" if he threw a tennis ball against the house. He waited until his parents were out to tell the babysitter that "Mom lets me do it." He was so insistent, and confident, that the babysitter acquiesced. Later that day, Bobby's mom, Kathy, returned home to find the garage door window shattered in pieces on the driveway. "I suppose now he knew what would happen if you throw a ball against the house," said Kathy. "But then again, he probably always knew." What Bobby had done was use lying to get what he wanted, while also, in his mind, having the ability to "blame" the babysitter for allowing him to do it.

And then there are those kids who tell lies just for kicks, seemingly without anything to gain. In the case of Henry, for instance, insisting that 2 plus 2 was 5 was something he said just because he could; just, Sophie suspected, to see what might happen. Some studies suggest that children with better cognitive abilities tend to lie more, since lying requires first keeping the truth in mind and then manipulating that information. The ability to lie successfully -- something that Henry had not yet learned how to do, though Sophie got the sense he was definitely working his way up to that -- requires even more in the way of thinking and reasoning. Lying proficiency has also been linked to good social skills later on, in adolescence.

That doesn't mean such lies, or any lies kids tell, should go unacknowledged. It's important to raise children to value honesty, and to prevent lying from becoming frequent and consistent, the point at which lying is most troublesome. The first step in figuring out how to address a lie is to consider why your child is telling it. Is the child trying to avoid trouble? Save face? Is he old enough to understand that lying is wrong? A three-year-old who won't cop to coloring on the wall knows that wall coloring is bad, but may not quite understand that lying about it isn't. In such a case, instead of threatening him with punishment, teach him about the value of things.

Gently point out that you think he may know more than he is letting on, and then thank and praise him if he comes clean. This can foster more truth-telling in the future. What's more, in younger and older kids, don't set them up to lie. If you know a child has spilled milk on the living room rug because you saw it happen, don't ask her if she spilled milk on the rug. Instead, ask her why it happened. If you know your 16-year-old has been smoking because you found cigarettes in his car, don't ask him if he's smoking. Ask him when he started.

In all cases, when talking to kids about lying, express your displeasure. Be explicit that it's wrong to lie, and explain why. Make it clear that lying diminishes trust, and that the more frequently he lies, the harder it becomes to believe him when he's telling the truth. Establish, and stick with, consequences for lying; the more a child has gotten away with lying, the more likely he is to continue. Try to head lying off at the pass: If you sense a lie is coming, say, "It makes me happy when you tell me the truth." And keep in mind yourself that lying is different from not sharing. This is particularly relevant as kids approach adolescence, when kids may be more reluctant to share information with you, but without necessarily lying. Allowing them to develop their own sense of independence -- that is, resisting the need to know everything -- and being confident in their decision-making will reduce the likelihood that they'll lie to you about the things that really matter.

And above all, with kids of any age, help encourage the notion of truth telling by practicing it yourself. Most adults issue "harmless" lies all day long, within earshot of children. Maybe that's a lie about a kid's age to get a break on tickets to a soccer game. Or telling someone who calls that you can't talk because you're running out the door, when you're about to sit down to watch a movie. Keep in mind that kids, especially those under 10, often can't tell the difference between small lies and big ones. They just know it's happening. And that lying is a learned -- but changeable -- behavior. The more they're conditioned to hearing lies, the more they'll think they're a normal part of behavior, and vice versa. Which means the biggest truth of all is that raising honest kids starts with you.

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and their children.

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