How We Learn to Lie

Liar, liar—breaking the habit

Posted Jan 05, 2014

How We Learn to Lie:

Parents care about their children. After all, they are helpless beings from the get go. We need to make sure that they are fed, clothed, and kept warm. It is hard to be overprotective when dealing with a young child.

On the other hand, children need to become independent. Research has an interesting thing to tell us. According to Margaret Mahler, the first steps of a toddler are AWAY from her mother! Kids have egos too…and need to assert themselves, even with parents staring over their shoulders. 

So, how do you break free when you are little and a parent supervises without stop? Two strategies work, and often continue onto adulthood. 

  • The Power of NO: We all yearn to hear our child belt out mommy or daddy as their first word, but often a child is more concerned with establishing independence than assuaging our feelings. “No” is a great first word.
  • The Power of Lying: Most children learn the art of lying as another route to establishing independence. Children will often say they didn't do something that they have done with the hope that it will all go away. Sound familiar?

When Children Lie:

Let’s consider one of Bill Cosby’s classic routines:  He tells of a moment when he happens upon his youngest daughter, who has her hand in the proverbial cookie jar. Cosby’s caught this kid red handed. Nothing is said. They stare at each other for awhile. Then, as if caught by surprise, this smart little girl takes her hand out with a cookie and hands it to her Daddy adding, "This is for you" —which of course is a lie.

Lying establishes secrets because you can't have a secret without lying. The two go hand-in-hand. Children keep secrets to have something special for themselves. Mommy and Daddy don't know about the candy that Timothy had before dinner. Or that he lied about brushing his teeth before going to bed. Lying is a form of power. It is a form of individuation. And, for young children, it’s healthy and normal.

Imaginary friends are a popular secret kept from parents. You'll find your child talking out loud to thin air playing dress up or house. And when you invade this world and try to find out what she's up to, she'll decline to tell you the truth and quickly say, "Nothing."

The Secret Life of a Parent: 

Parents also keep secrets from their children. They talk about things children don't know about - money, sex, or even about the children themselves.

Plus, parents have a secret life behind the closed door of their bedroom. Whatever strange sounds seep out only add to the secrets of that space. Kids are not allowed. And, they can only guess what’s going on.

The news here is that the world of secrets is not inherently problematic. Children keep secrets, and parents do as well. But when secrets become a destructive part of adult life, they can lead to dangerous double lives.

Lying must abate. And, it does for most children. We would not have civilization without this accomplishment.

The Development of Integrity:

Naturally, a child’s mind matures. She reaches the grade school years and appreciates the need for fairness and truth in this world. She develops the hard won capacity to self express and her parents value her sense of right and wrong. They encourage their emerging citizen to express herself. Lying becomes a taboo…an antiquated and immature relic of her past.

This is what happens in normal development. What is required is a fertile mind, loving parents and good modeling. Citizenry starts with the school age child. And, our collective belief in justice and fairness extends to adult life.

It is a sad thing when something goes wrong.

Some kids never give up the power of lying.

  • How Abuse Stunts Development: The malignancy of abuse hurts children on many levels. Why should they trust again? And, deep in their brains lies hurts that get reactivated in adult life. This is the trauma response. But, an issue not spoken about enough is how abuse affects the developmental dynamic of telling the truth. Imagine that you are sexually or physically abused. You have no safe place at home. And, the parent who abuses you is also the source of food and substance. Plus, you may believe that if only you behave, then he or she will leave you alone. He tells you to keep the secret. She warns you that this is not to be discussed with strangers…we are family after all.
  • They Watch Us:  Parenting is about modeling. If we lie easily, they may as well. Whatever our background may be, we bring our values to our children. And, they are prone to copying them. They know when we lie. For example, when you’re out with friends and not paying attention to them. “Oh, I had a lot of work to do.” It works once, twice, but not over time. If we are triggered to win all arguments, we will bend the truth in order to make a point. Are you narcissistic or a bully? They know… and they are tempted to copy.
  • Are We Fair? At its core, truth is about believing in something bigger than our egos. It need not be a religious belief. We come to believe that truth counts. And that winning an argument is not as important as the truth. We believe that truth may be unhappy, but forgiveness is in this world. Kids lie to get away with stuff. They tell the truth in order to be true to themselves. If parents are inherently unfair, kids don’t become believers.
  • Do We Care? The debate today about validating every action of our children comes down to a discussion about fostering character. Kids naturally lie to get away with things. Do we crack down so hard that they are wounded, or do we act as if it doesn't matter which is another form of wound. We need to care about our standards. Deceipt is not acceptable. Do we communicate this important value successfully?

Ode to Lying:

There is a place for lying in this world. In fact, it is developmentally normal for a preschool child. It kicks up again in adolescence. But, it should fade as a habit as a child matures and becomes more confident of himself and his standards.

Lying will never go away. It is in our advertisements, in our relationships, in our sports, our politics and in American self promotion.

Yet, life is not so simple. Lying does sometimes serve a purpose when balanced against other values that really count to you. And, occasionally withholding a truth is a kindness. Do you really want to tell your son that he lacks any ability to sing?  Who knows, he may surprise you. Lying is one value among many. But, if it becomes habit, then we have a problem.

In coming posts, we’ll look at lying in relationships and elsewhere. Lying can lead to secrets. And, secrets can lead to troubles.

Yet, without those first lies, we would not be who we are.

And, for that, lying deserves praise.


For more from Dr. Banschick:

The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Your Children (Kindle)

The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Your Children (Amazon)

The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Yourself (Kindle)

The Intelligent Divorce- Taking Care of Yourself (Amazon) 

Course - Raising Healthy Kids Despite DivorceSign Up

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