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Teach Your Children to Lie

Skills involved in lying and playing hide and seek matter for social competence

Lying is an incredibly important skill. But it is pretty tricky and depends on a basic cognitive capability that young children lack and need to develop. You may have to teach your children how to lie effectively.

I know the basic moral view about lying: Lying is wrong and you shouldn’t lie. So by suggesting that we teach children to lie, I must be an awful person. But if I can be honest for a moment, lying really is an important skill. We lie every day. How are you? I’m fine. Frequently that’s a lie. We also use lies and deception in games; including games that we play with children. Although you might win a lot, playing cards with someone who can’t deceive and bluff isn’t much fun. We certainly use deception and often direct lies in business and political negotiations. Like many skills, lying can be used for good or bad goals. But here’s the crucial thing: The ability to lie effectively is related to many other demonstrations of social competence. So in spite of the generally accepted truth, I’m not convinced that lying is always bad. Instead, I’m convinced it is crucial that children learn the cognitive skills that enable lying.

But little kids are horrible liars. The inability of small children to lie is a wonderful gift when you’re the parent and you are trying to find out who committed some transgression. An inability to lie also pretty funny when you play hide-n-seek with a little kid. They can’t hide effectively because they aren’t very good at deceiving you. They don’t seem to understand when you can and can’t see them. They also can’t seem to stop giggling; which makes me laugh too. So hide and seek is both fun and funny with little children.

Deception, lying, and hiding depend on the development of a Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind is the cognitive understanding that we all have minds and that those minds hold knowledge and beliefs. More importantly, Theory of Mind is the realization that we may have different knowledge, different beliefs; that is, different minds.

Little children have not finished developing their Theory of Mind. In particular, children often have problems understanding that other people have different knowledge and beliefs than they have. For example, once a young child knows something, that child seems to believe that this knowledge is shared with everyone. A classic demonstration of a Theory of Mind failure concerns false beliefs. A false belief is when your belief about the world doesn’t match the state of the world. You might show children a crayon box and ask what they think is in the box. “Crayons.” Then you open the box and discover that it holds something other than crayons – maybe Cheerios. For a young child, that is surprising and way cool. “Wow, Cheerios in the Crayon box.” The original thought that crayons were in the crayon box, while reasonable, was a false belief. Adults make jokes about this sort of false packaging when we re-use boxes to wrap new gifts. In a Theory of Mind test, you then close the crayon box (so you can’t see the Cheerios anymore). Then you show the box to someone new and ask the child what this new person will think is in the box. Of course you and I with our developed Theory of Mind will suspect that the new person will believe there are crayons in the box and that the new person will be surprised to discover Cheerios in the box. We think they will hold a false belief. After all, that’s what we used to believe too. But very young children mistakenly claim that the new person will know that Cheerios are in the crayon box. Somehow they think their knowledge is shared with all other minds. They haven’t figured out that someone else can hold false beliefs or beliefs that differ from their own.

Solving Theory of Mind is fundamental to both lying and other measures of social competence. I have to understand that you have beliefs, knowledge, and feelings. I have to understand that your beliefs, knowledge, and feelings may differ from mine. If I want to lie, then I have to manipulate your beliefs and knowledge. If I want to convince you to do something, I also have to manipulate your beliefs, knowledge, and feelings. If I want to have empathy, then I have to appreciate your beliefs and feelings. Interacting with others depends on having a well-developed Theory of Mind.

So if you want your child to deceive, lie, manipulate others, and display social competence, you must teach your children to solve Theory of Mind problems. In a recent experimental study, several researchers did just this will 3-year-old children who couldn’t effectively play hide and seek (Ding, Wellman, Wang, Fu, & Lee, 2015). In other words, the children couldn’t deceive others. Ding and colleagues trained the children with false belief problems (similar to the “what is in the crayon box” problems). After training, the children were substantially better at a hide and seek game that involved misleading the experimenter. The ability last for months indicating that the training helped the children develop Theory of Mind earlier than they might have done otherwise. Playing deception games, false belief games, and hide and seek may help children develop a Theory of Mind (and enable effective lying).

Lying, like other social skills, depends on recognizing that other people have minds. Those other minds hold information that differs from my knowledge. Once I have Theory of Mind, I can work to manipulate that other person’s beliefs. Of course, I could also recognize the other person’s beliefs and display empathy for that person. Surprisingly both lying and social competence depend on developing a Theory of Mind. I have to recognize your mind if I am going to deceive you or appreciate you. Teach your children to lie. Play games that depend of deception. Your children need these skills to become more empathic and socially competent adults.

Ding, Wellman, Wang, Fu, & Lee (2015). Theory of Mind Causes Honest Young Children to Lie, Psychological Science , Online release 10.2.15 doi: 10.1177/0956797615604628