Many parents consider children’s lying to be a major transgression or even a moral failing. But recent research offers an explanation that may alter these views.

Kang Lee, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, reports that learning to lie is a natural stage in a child’s development. Lee is quoted in the article “Why We Lie” by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee (National Geographic, June 6, 2017) as seeing the emergence of lying in toddlers as a reassuring sign that their cognitive growth is on track.

The author states that lying emerged not long after the development of language and no doubt resulted in an evolutionary advantage that gave an edge to those competing for resources and mates.

Lying becomes possible when a child is able to put himself or herself in someone else’s shoes. This is a major intellectual achievement. The child is saying, “If I do this, what is the other person going to do?” Psychologists call this ability the ‘theory of mind.’ This is the mental facility we all acquire and need in order to understand the beliefs, intentions, and knowledge of others. It is a major achievement in intellectual skill.

 

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Also fundamental to the ability to lie is the development of the brain’s executive functions. These include the facilities required for planning, paying attention, and self control. When kids begin to lie, we know they are achieving developmental milestones.

The author describes the method researchers used to assess lying in children. Lee and his colleagues designed a simple experiment. They asked kids to identify a toy hidden under a cover, while at the same time, sounding an audio clue. The first few were easy – a bark for a toy dog, a meow for a toy cat, etc.

Next, they played music that had no relation to the hidden toy. While the music played the researcher was called from the room and the children were left alone. Will they peek to see what toy is under the cover? A hidden camera recorded their actions.

Most children cannot resist peeking. When the researcher returned, he asked each child whether he or she peeked. He discovered that the percentage of kids who peeked and lied about it depended on their age. Thirty percent of the two-year-olds lied about peeking. Fifty percent of the three-year-olds lied, and 80 percent of the eight-year-olds lied.

The author notes that children get more sophisticated in their lying as they get older. Three and four-year-olds “blurt out” the answer immediately, not realizing this indicates they probably peeked. By seven or eight, kids tend to make their answers sound like reasoned guesses rather than a sure thing. Some kids attempt to disguise their peeking by giving a wrong answer.

Psychologist Lee also tested the children on the development of theory of mind and executive functions to discover any relationship with lying. What he found is that the two-year-olds who lied performed better on tests of theory of mind and executive function than those who didn’t. At age 16, those kids who were proficient liars performed better on tests of mental facilities than those who were poor liars.

What does this suggest for parents who want their kids to learn to tell the truth? While it is helpful to know that lying is a normal part of child development, it doesn’t let parents off the hook for teaching kids the importance of honesty. Parents need not judge lies as moral failings, but rather as explorations into new intellectual territory.

Knowing the basis of lying gives parents a better understanding of this behavior, but we are still faced with devising a coping strategy that curbs lying. The question is how should parents respond?

It’s not difficult to tell when kids are making up stories and when they’re being truthful. The best approach is for parents to examine the evidence and determine what happened without relying on the child’s version of the event.

If the cookies are missing and there are crumbs in Johnny’s room, don’t ask if he took the cookies. That invites him to lie. Assess the evidence and act accordingly. Let Johnny know beforehand what the consequence of taking cookies will be and follow through.

This strategy can be applied at any age. If you want to know if Janie has done her homework, ask to see the work. Show an interest in the completed assignments. When adolescents claim to be at one place and you are unsure of that, check with other adults to verify their whereabouts.

Avoid asking siblings to corroborate your information. Siblings need one another for support. In minor issues or major events, it’s up to parents to determine what happened.