Celebrating Your Child’s Lies

Why lying is normal (and healthy!) for very young children.

Posted Feb 22, 2016

Creative Commons
Source: Creative Commons

Caller: “My child will not be coming to school today because he is sick.”
School Administrator: “Can you tell me who is calling?”
Caller: “I am my father.”

-Dr. Kang Lee, TEDxUofT

As the mother of a 3-year-old daughter, I am increasingly exposed to the alarming (yet adorable) reality of early childhood lying. A couple of months ago, my husband came to me laughing. He was playing with our daughter and she wanted a treat. Knowing that he would ask her what I would say, she looked him square in the face and said: “Mommy said ‘yes’.” Then she paused, tilted her head slightly, pointed her index finger in the air, and said very seriously, “But don’t ask her!”

Since that day, many lies have followed. From denying that she was eating toothpaste out of the bottle (“Don’t look, Mommy!”) to telling me a boy in her class hit her (“It was Fernando, Mommy”… which I believed until her teacher told me that Fernando moved away two months ago and the entire class is blaming him for everything bad), lies flow out of her mouth in abundance.

Aside from simultaneously wanting to laugh out loud and pull my hair out, these recent experiences lead me to ask a very serious question: Is it normal for young children to lie? Or should I be highly concerned?   

According to the research of Dr. Kang Lee, Distinguished Professor of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the University of Toronto, children begin lying as early as two years old. In fact, about 30% of children lie by age two. By age three, about half of kids lie. And by age four, a whopping 80% lie.

As it turns out, lying is very common in young children. The fact that lying is, dare I say, a normal part of child development is hard for me to swallow. As a psychologist with a belief that honesty is essential to long-term life fulfillment in adults, can lying really be healthy?

There is actually reason to believe that lying in young children is normal, healthy and indicative of positive psychological functioning. According to Dr. Lee’s research, there are two key abilities that a child must possess to lie. First, they must have what he calls mind-reading ability. This means that a child must understand that their mind is separate from another person’s mind.  That what they know is different than what another person knows. In other words, “I know you don’t know what I know.” The second key ingredient is self-control: the ability to control their speech, facial expression, and body language. Otherwise the lie will not be believable.

Research suggests that children who are better at mind-reading and self-control tell more sophisticated lies from an earlier age.  So, in fact, it appears that lying is associated with some very positive attributes, including intelligence, individuation, and creativity.

In addition, children are not born with a moral compass: they learn by exploring and getting feedback from their environment. From an early age, children are motivated by the pleasure principle: to get more of what they want and less of what they don’t want. Consequently, most lies that young children tell are to avoid unpleasant consequences (such as getting punished for breaking a vase or hitting their friend) or to get something positive (such as attention, a favorite food, or praise).

Lying in early childhood is also complex because, as said by Dr. Michael Brody, “Very young kids don’t know the difference between truth and fiction.” From pretending he is a fire-breathing dragon to continually wearing a crown and asserting that she is a princess, early childhood is a time of imagination. Of fantasy. Of exploration. These are healthy hallmarks of early childhood development; and add to the joy of being a kid! As such, understanding truth from fiction is a slippery slope for most young children… and living in “reality” is much less fun. 

The Naked Truth is this: By age 4, the large majority of children lie. Although lying is not something most of us want to encourage in our children, it is helpful to remember that lying is a normal part of a child’s psychological development. And, at this age, lying is actually associated with a number of positive attributes (including intelligence, creativity, and individuation). Although we do not want to encourage overt lying in our children (especially as they age), there are actually reasons to celebrate your child’s lies when they are very young.

Copyright Cortney S. Warren, Ph.D.