No one is born honorable. If you doubt me, just watch little kids at play. Scholarly research confirms this point. Michael Lewis, a prominent psychologist at Rutgers, has conducted many studies of how children naturally lie and deceive and are even encouraged to do so by well-meaning parents. Certain ways of expressing emotion are taught to be acceptable while others are not. One experiment, for example, showed that children are usually taught to express sadness when their mother leaves them with a baby sitter. But the reality was that children were not sad and recovered quickly when the mother left. Other examples included how children are taught to express responses to minor insults or injuries. Some kids are taught that it is all right to over-react.
Lewis and his colleagues conducted some classical experiments in young children that revealed how their tendency for false behavior changed with age. They secretly videotaped children in an honesty test in which they were told not to peek at a toy that was placed behind them. The child was told that the adult had to leave the room for a few minutes, but when she comes back the two will play with the toy.
One hundred percent of children as young as 2 peeked at the toy. As evidence that self-control grows with age, only 35 percent of 6-year-olds peeked. However, lying seemed to increase with age as children learned to perceive a benefit from lying. When asked if they peeked, 38 percent of 2-year-olds lied. But among 6-year-olds, 100 percent of peekers lied about it. Boys generally had less self-control in resisting peeking, but no sex differences occurred in the extent of lying.
Clear correlations were seen with other aspects of cognitive function. For example, how quickly a child yielded to the temptation of peeking varied with IQ. Those who peeked sooner had lower IQ scores. They also had less emotional intelligence, that is, were less able to name the emotions revealed by pictures of human faces and less able to predict the kind of emotion that would be generated by certain experiences.
However, the lying varied directly with IQ and emotional intelligence. Smarter kids were more likely to lie. Moreover, Lewis and others contend that lying and deception are normal and good. Lying seems to be associated with prosocial behavior and creativity.
Lewis and others think that children should not be condemned for their dishonorable behavior. It comes from self-serving biology. Human weakness is most evident in children, and they will often do things they know they should not do.
It is hard to know how a child really feels, because the parents are continually teaching them how they should express feelings and reactions to life events. When children become adults, the lifetime of conditioning about expressing emotions creates problems for mental health workers to treat patients because true feelings are so buried and masked.
Children learn to think and behave in untruthful ways for three reasons:
Children also learn self-deception at rates that vary with age. The development of self-esteem is at play here. A child learns to avoid or minimize honest judgments that unnecessarily diminish their self-esteem. At the same time, a child could learn that honest self-appraisal serves the useful purpose of avoiding future mistakes or taking some necessary action.
Experimentally, pretend play provides a paradigm for studying self-deception. Very young children imitate the actions of others around them. As they get a little older, they pretend that one toy is doing something with another toy, as for example, toy soldiers engaging in battle.
Pretend play begins at around age 1. Lewis gives the example of how a 1-year-old may pretend seeing his mother talking on the phone. By age 2 or 3 the child might pretend that her doll is talking on the phone. By 3 years of age, a child is able to consider success or failure of the pretend scenarios and to assign blame or credit for them. At this point, self-conscious emotions have emerged that lead to shame for failure and pride in success.
Children readily learn to seek self-benefit and to take advantage of others, as when a child lies about a misdeed and blames it on an innocent, such as a sibling. Unfortunately, little research seems to have been done on childhood development of this level of dishonesty. How does it change with age? What factors promote it? Or mitigate it? The social consequences are profound.
Children are biologically wired to behave falsely. Where do they learn moral values and respect for truth? We know that teaching of children has lasting effects, good or bad.
Knowledge and life experience change what a person thinks as true. Highly intelligent kids can figure a lot of this out on their own. But they need to question, and most humans are prone to take things at face value. In my decades of teaching at the college level, I have learned that most students are intellectually compliant and do not question. Maybe they are indoctrinated to be this way. After all, they have had 12 years of taking multiple-choice quizzes where each question is deemed to be the right question that has only one correct answer.
In most cases, behaving untruthfully is stupid, because we may eventually get caught. When that happens, who will trust us again? We are made still more stupid by life experiences that create the illusion that clever false behavior works. We learn our counterproductive attitudes and behaviors, and worse yet, we reinforce them by repetition and turn them into bad habits. We do stupid things because our brains have been programmed by our learning experiences to keep doing things that are not in our best long-term interest.
Michael Lewis and some other psychologists think childhood lying, deceptions, and other forms of untruthfulness are normal developmental features that even help children become more emotionally and socially competent as an adult. I vigorously disagree. The price to be paid for accepting childhood dishonor is that children are learning dishonorable bad habits. Children usually have a selfish reason for being untruthful and dishonorable. If parents and other adults do not correct such bad behavior as it occurs because they believe it is normal for that age, children can become spoiled brats that grow up to be self-absorbed adults who feel entitled, make excuses, shift blame to innocents, and accept and spread false narratives. They may even react violently when their views are not accepted by others.
Children have a particularly hard time knowing their feelings and limitations. That is why adult nurturing is so important to help children learn how to “grow up.” It is also why children, especially teenagers, are so prone to angst and poor choices. Indeed, a critical element of growing up is self-awareness, seeing things as they really are, and resolving the things that cause problems and unhappiness. All children develop attitudes, emotions, beliefs, and behaviors that need some degree of correction. In that sense, all children have a “bad brain,” and they need to be taught how to develop it constructively.
Children have to learn right from wrong and then develop the discipline and character to do the right. I have a new book that should inspire readers to include in their life purpose a pursuit of truth that goes beyond the usual casual and superficial level. Each of us needs and should want to know how to detect, understand, and deal with dishonorable behavior in others, lest others betray or exploit us. Likewise, each of us needs to understand our own character weaknesses, so that we can become better, more respected, and trusted people. Children need to know the seven deadly forms of untruthfulness, which I identify as:
How does one teach honorable behavior? First, note the assertion that honor is something a person can learn to embrace. If parents don’t teach right and wrong, children may not learn it. Teaching anything can involve a mixture of positive and negative reinforcement. For misbehaving children, spanking used to be the standard remedy. That does not always work, and is subject to abuse. Alternatives include withholding privileges. Young people frequently think they have a right to much of what they want in life. A loving parent may need to take away these “rights” and dole them back out as “privileges” at the pace that children grow morally.
A parent can structure rewards for good behavior. You can keep score on a calendar or in a notebook on the progress at developing a certain desirable behavior. The Boy Scout idea of doing a good deed every day has great merit. The merit- badge concept in both Boy and Girl Scouts is sound psychological practice for instilling the desire to do the right thing and get recognition for it.
The best teaching is not telling, but of prompting students to question what is appropriate. For example, a parent who finds her child cheating in school, should ask, “Have you thought about what might be wrong with cheating?” Or a child who steals another kid’s lunch money should be challenged with “Was it fair for you to take that money? Would you mind if another kid took your lunch money?” Or when caught in a lie, a parent could say, “Please don’t lie to me. I need to trust you. Don’t you want me to be able to trust you?”
Of course, the best approach is to prevent wrong behavior by setting a good personal example. We all know that children learn more from what we do than what we say. From family and personal relationships to practicing one's religion, what could be more destructive than hypocrisy?
Seeking recognition or rewards for good character is itself an unworthy motive. We should do the right thing for the right reasons. When a child's reason is self-serving, such as seeking praise or reward, a child may be deceiving herself and others about her real character.
Lewis, Michael. (2015). The origins of lying and deception in everyday life. American Scientist. 103: 128-135.