Believe it or not, every child will likely experiment telling a lie. And what may seem cute at first (my tummy hurts because I need more ice cream) can trend into a bad habit. From explaining what a lie is, when fibbing is good for the imagination and when to nip it, Ashley Merryman, author of Nurture Shock (a Breezy Mama Top 10 Parenting Book), gets to the truth of the matter.
Why do kids lie?
Basically, young children lie because they are telling you what they think you want to hear. If it would make you angry to know that Suzie broke the vase, Suzie will say, “I didn’t break the vase.” And Suzie believes that you’ll be happy to hear her “good news.” As kids get older, they also start lying because they know they’ve transgressed, and they don’t want to be punished. But again – that goes back to believing that a claim of innocence will make you happy.
In fact, in lab studies, telling a child, “It will make me really happy if you tell me the truth” will get most children to confess to a wrongdoing, because it removes the whole reason kids were going to lie in the first place. Now they know that honesty, not just the “good news,” is what you really want.
When do kids start lying, and at what age should we step in?
By four years old, almost all kids will begin experimenting with lying. Kids with older siblings may start even earlier – at two or three. In fact, early lying can be a sign of intelligence, because think about all that a lie requires. You have to know a fact; realize that someone else doesn’t know that fact; tell that other person a new, untrue fact; and then – most difficult of all – you have to remember to only talk about that false version of events, and not let the truth slip into your conversation.
But as soon as kids start lying, you need to respond immediately. Early lies are especially important. When kids tell those first lies, they realize they aren’t “Mommy’s little angel.” If they get caught, it’s really upsetting, and they often won’t lie much after that. But if they think they’ve gotten away with those first lies, they may begin to rely on lying as their go-to strategy for any difficult situation.
How do you explain what lying is?
It’s going to depend on a child’s age, really. I don’t think kids have much of a problem getting the basics of vocabulary down – they understand pretty quickly that a lie is something that isn’t true. They also know that lying is wrong, if for no other reason than they will get punished.
Where the concept of lying gets more involved is because young children don’t understand it in the same way that you and I do. The key difference is that a very young child doesn’t see how a person’s intent relates to a lie. Instead, any wrong information is a lie. For example, if you asked me for directions, but I accidentally said, “Turn left,” when I meant, “Turn right,” a young child might insist that I’d lied to you. Even some seven year-olds have difficulty grasping the idea of intent.
But most researchers think that we put far too much emphasis on talking to kids about lying. Where we should be spending our time is in talking about the value of honesty – telling kids that we want to hear the truth. They need to understand that honesty is important to us.
I’ve heard that kids can be “set up” to lie when a parent asks, “Did you take the toy?” their natural reaction would be to deny it knowing that admitting will just get them in trouble. How can parents avoid setting up their child?
The reality is 99% of the time, when you ask a kid a question like, “What happened?” you already know. So questions like these just aren’t really about learning about what happened; instead, they become a test of a kid’s veracity. And if he does lie, now you are probably doubly-frustrated. You were already upset the child took the toy; now add the lie on top of that.
So researchers like McGill University’s Victoria Talwar say that the better thing to do is to start with what you know. Instead of beginning a conversation with “Did you take the toy?” you could just say, “Where is the toy now?” or “Bring me the toy.” Those are about solving the problem and moving forward, rather than compounding it.
What if it’s more serious and they are claiming to tell the truth, but we parents know they are lying — how do we handle that situation?
This is hard to say in the abstract, but, as I said, it’s important to respond to early lies. So if the kid persists in telling a lie, you may need to punish him. However, a couple words of caution in that. First, ask why you are punishing the child? Is the punishment for the lie itself, or something else? Let’s go back to that who the kid stole a toy, then lied about it. If he’s punished, how much of the punishment is for stealing, and how much of it is for lying? The reality is that, most times, all the punishment relates to the first wrongdoing – so there was no actual cost for the lie. So, from his perspective, he may as well try another lie the next time.
Also, it’s important to understand that punishment alone is not the answer. On the contrary, constant threat of punishment just encourages kids to become better liars – so they don’t get caught. Especially if lying is a pattern of behavior, the better response may not be punishment at all. Instead, there may be times when parents may need to promise that if the child tells the truth, then he won’t be punished for whatever he’s confessed: that’s how important honesty is to you. Again, honesty makes you happy. And if he does confess at that point, then you have to abide by that promise and not punish him. Otherwise, he won’t trust you. If you aren’t honest with him, he’ll see no reason to be honest with you.
Should parents prevent their children from tall tales, or is that good for the imagination? For example, if a child says he went on a submarine at preschool today and caught a shark. Nip it or go along with it?
Hmm. Is the child smiling? If we look at that example specifically, I might put that one under the category of “trick lies.” A child’s trick lie isn’t an attempt to mislead anyone. It’s really more a variation of pretending: the child may just want you to play with him. He’s expecting a response like, “Did you see mermaids, too?” If that’s what we are talking about, sure – go with it. Play’s great for kids. It doesn’t just help develop their imagination. Play is good for developing a child’s self-control, empathy, perspective-taking, and expressiveness.
The more difficult-to-handle trick lie is the more realistic one. A classic is something like when you’re busy in the kitchen, and the kid says, “Mommy, someone’s at the door!” But you go to the door, and no one’s there. Again, the researchers say the child didn’t consider this to be a lie; instead, it was an invitation to play. So rather than scolding the child for lying, you might try telling the phantom door-knocker, “I’m very sorry, but I can’t talk right now. Can you come back after I’ve put dinner in the oven?”
When it’s not imaginative, but more manipulative for lack of a better word, how should it be handled. For example, someone wrote in and asked, “He told his grandpa that he walks to hot chocolate with his dad every morning so his grandpa would walk to hot chocolate with him. But, a lie is a lie. How do I tell him he can’t do this?”
Generally lies as tools of manipulation are probably the biggest concern researchers have about young kids’ lying. These lies should absolutely be responded to, because we don’t want children learning that lying is a successful way to manipulate others (I mean – if the preschooler with the submarine wasn’t playing, but instead is trying to impress other children, I’d address that situation as well). Beyond that, we don’t want kids using duplicitousness as their strategy for any difficult situation: children need to learn other ways of problem-solving.
Any other advice for preventing lying?
Don’t just talk about honesty when you’re faced with a lie. Instead, the next time a child wants a story, tell her about George Washington and the cherry tree. Talk about honesty when a child doesn’t feel threatened. On the other hand, stop reading Pinocchio and The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Those stories actually send a message that the penalties for lying are so severe (you’ll become an orphan, a donkey, you’ll get eaten alive), that kids just become better liars, so that there’s no chance they’ll be caught.
I’d also be really mindful of modeling honesty. Kids listen to us lie, and they adopt our behaviors. And we might not count a white lie as a lie, these half-truths make a real impression on children. Kids don’t understand why lying to Grandpa (“I love the sweater!”) is all right one day, but not all right the next.
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About Ashley Merriman
With Po Bronson, Ashley Merryman is the award-winning author of NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children. One of the most influential books about children ever published, NurtureShock is a revolutionary new perspective on children that upends a library’s worth of conventional wisdom. With impeccable storytelling and razor-sharp analysis, the authors demonstrate that many of modern society’s strategies for nurturing children are in fact backfiring–because key twists in the science have been overlooked. NurtureShock is a New York Times best seller with editions being published in 16 languages to date.