When children lie

Lying is part of normal development, but still must be addressed

By Alandra Johnson / The Bulletin

Published Jan 18, 2013 at 04:00AM

”I didn't grab the cat's tail.”

“Yes, I brushed my teeth.”

“I didn't hit my brother.”

Kids lie.

It's a fact every parent has to face. But a lie doesn't mean your sweet little angel has turned into a conniving evil genius. Lying is much more complicated than that.

Just ask Kang Lee, who has been studying lying and children for years as a professor of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto. “Lying is actually a natural behavior among children.”

Lee says some children begin lying as early as age 2. By age 3, most know what lying is and know it is wrong. Catching a child lying does not mean “that child is going to turn into a psychopath,” said Lee.

Lying is a challenging behavior for parents to tackle, but there are steps they can take to help curb the behavior and help children distinguish between lies told to save someone's feelings and lies told to deceive or harm.

Development of lying

The first type of lies kids tell are those to avoid trouble, says Lee. “It's very difficult for a child to inhibit natural tendencies,” said Lee. That requires the prefrontal lobe to develop, which doesn't take place until age 14 or 15. Kids violate a rule (hitting, eating something they shouldn't, etc.) and then lie to avoid getting in trouble.

Lee says at age 2, the majority of children will confess a transgression, while about 20 to 25 percent will lie about it. At age 3, the split is about half and half. By age 4, 90 percent of children would lie about a transgression, and by age 6 or 7, nearly 100 percent of kids lie to avoid getting in trouble. But, Lee says, by age 12, it starts to go down again to around 60 percent. Teenagers, it turns out, are more honest than preschoolers.

“Teenagers, contrary to popular belief, are more honest than we think,” said Lee.

But the lies some teenagers do tell — which can be connected to hiding risky behaviors — can be more dangerous than those told by younger children. That's why it can be so important to get kids to understand the importance of telling the truth at an early age.

Lying in early ages can be a good thing — it is a sign of executive control. Preschoolers who confess and do not lie tend to have lower scores in certain cognitive areas, according to Lee. Kids who lie are also generally better able to understand the way other people's minds work and do better socially, says Lee.

At first, children's lies are very unsophisticated, said Angela Crossman, assistant professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who studies children and deception (among other things, she studies the reliability of child witnesses). Parents can generally ferret out the truth by asking a few followup questions.

One of the studies Crossman worked on demonstrated just that.

Crossman worked on a research project in which children were told not to peek at a toy (a stuffed seal), positioned where the child could not easily see it, when the researcher left the room. Almost all of the children, ages 3 to 4, peeked and about 80 percent lied about having peeked. “Then you say, 'What do you think it is?' and they say, 'Oh, I think it's a seal,'” said Crossman with a laugh. Older children, she says, know not to give that information away. “It takes practice to sort of get better at lying,” said Crossman.

Types of lies

Not all lies are equal.

Dana Heath has been teaching preschool for 27 years at Dana's Discovery Kids in Bend. During circle time when the children discuss what they did over break, Heath notices some kids who describe experiences that didn't happen (going to the moon and back, for instance). Other times the lies can be more challenging, such as when she sees them “working their parents.” For instance, Heath saw a group of girls playing with a ball together; an issue with sharing started that led to hitting, then tears. When one girl's dad arrived she told him, “They stole my ball.” Heath stepped in to explain the full story.

“Kids are really self-centered at that age,” said Heath. And parents tend to be gullible, believing their sweet child. “It's a process. They will continue to learn throughout a lifetime.”

Crossman is working on a study that involves examining four types of lies told by children. One type is told to avoid trouble, the most common lie in young children. Another is “impression management,” which is told to make the liar look better; this becomes more common as children get older. The third type is “wishful thinking” (“I have the biggest bike”), which is told fairly infrequent. Then there are “white lies,” which are told for the benefit of others.

Researchers found even children as young as ages 3 to 5 would tell a lie to make someone feel better. The researchers set up a scenario: The adult and child play a series of games and the child always wins and earns a prize from a third party. The adult says, “Oh, I never win” and asks if the child would lie to the other person so they could win a prize, too. This lie is considered altruistic because it takes a prize away from the child and gives to another person. Crossman says they found a very clear trend of children who would lie in this scenario: 25 percent of 3-year-olds would lie; 32 percent of 4-year-olds; 41 percent of 5-year-olds and 80 percent of 6-year-olds.

They also found that children with authoritarian parents (those who were rigid, strict and not nurturing) were less likely to lie in the study. Those who lied also scored higher on executive function. “Telling an altruistic lie is associated with more mature, adaptive development,” said Crossman.

She says this points to the fact that “not all lies are a sign of a problem. Some are a sign of sensitivity to other people's needs.”

“There are cases in which parents encourage children to lie,” said Victoria Talwar, who runs a research team at McGill University exploring lying and children. Like when a boy opens a present from Grandma that he doesn't really like. Talwar says parents need to talk about this situation and explain that “it's about saving someone's feelings.”

One recent study from the University of Arizona found that children tended to tell more white lies among their peers, but more selfish lies or self-enhancing lies to their moms.

Tips for parents

When a small child lies, it can be funny, like when a 3-year-old covered in chocolate insists he or she did not eat the candy bar. But Lee says it's important not to laugh (“Laugh behind the child, not in front of the child”) and instead use it as a teachable moment. These moments of catching a child in a lie don't come around as often as one might think, so it's important to use the ones that arise.

What should parents do when they catch a child in a lie?

First of all, parents should not ignore it. If a child hits and lies about it, the parent needs to address both the hitting and lying, according to Talwar.

Lee says some parents overreact. “Parents become too alarmed and do something too drastic,” said Lee. “Use that as an opportunity to teach, not an opportunity to scold and spank.”

Addressing lying is important to do early on, according to Talwar. Parents have more influence on the younger children. That said, Talwar feels parents should be realistic and points out that studies show most adults tell a couple lies every day.

Talwar says parents should address the idea of trustworthiness and credibility. Another good opportunity to address the topic is when your child has been lied to. Point out how the child feels and how this lie affected the relationship. “It can make you feel sad or upset. Lies can harm other people. And lies can harm you — and make people stop wanting to be around you,” said Talwar.

Another important tip is to not push kids into a position to lie. All of the researchers who studied lying discussed that parents should not ask a child a question they know the answer to: “Did you kick your brother?” This is a natural parental response, but it is setting a young child up to lie. If a parent sees the child do something, just say so: “You kicked your brother.”

Stories

The stories parents tell about lying also matter. In one of Talwar's studies, researchers noted the responses of children age 3 to 8 after being read one of two stories about lying. One group was read “Boy Who Cried Wolf” in which the boy is eaten by wolves after lying. The other group was read “George Washington and the Cherry Tree” in which George is praised for admitting he cut down the tree.

The group that heard the George Washington story was more likely to tell the truth, whereas the other group remained just as likely to tell lies, if not slightly more so.

Based on this finding, Talwar encourages parents to explain the importance of honesty and to praise it. That means if a child hits the dog and admits it, parents should deal with the hitting, but also praise the honesty.

Crossman uses this example: “Thank you so much. I know it was scary for you to tell me you hit the dog. It's really brave for people to tell the truth.”

“I'm not saying it's easy because it's not,” said Crossman.

Parents should also be sure to talk to children about white lies and how they differ from other lies. Children will start to notice parents telling these kind of lies by about age 4, according to Lee. Parents can point out that some lies benefit ourselves, but these white lies benefit others, which makes them different.

Other than these polite lies, parents should model truthful behavior and avoid telling lies, as hard as that may be.

Problems

Sometimes lying is indicative of a problem. Lee says it is not a good sign for a parent to catch a child lying frequently. The child is really dishonest or a bad liar, either one of which is a symptom of a problem. “It's a reflection of something else going on,” said Lee.

Crossman says once children hit age 7 or 8, some lying is normal, but chronic lying is not. It could be a sign of a self-esteem, attention or behavior issue.

Another warning sign is the type of lies children are telling. Typically, Lee says, as children get older, they tell more lies to benefit others and fewer lies to benefit themselves. Children with behavior problems do the reverse.

Talwar says preteens or teenagers telling chronic lies is linked to aggression and other disruptive behavior. But it can also be a sign of something else. She relayed the story of one mom who found out her son was chronically lying about having eaten his lunch (he wasn't eating it). After some investigating, she discovered her son was being bullied at school.

Lying facts

Lying facts

• Children can start lying at young as age 2.

• Lying is a developmental milestone and a sign of executive functioning in the brain.

• The earliest lies are told to prevent a child from getting into trouble — “Did you hit the dog?” “No.”

• Lying generally peaks in early elementary school age children, then goes down as children enter preteen and teenage years, although the nature of the lies changes.

• Older children are more likely to tell pro-social or “white lies” to benefit other people's feelings, whereas young children are more likely to tell lies to benefit themselves.

• Researchers found talking to children about the benefits of telling the truth is more effective to reduce lying than to tell them the downfall of telling lies (“Telling the truth is brave” vs. “Lying is wrong.”).

— Information from Kang Lee, Victoria Talwar and Angela Crossman

• Children can start lying as young as age 2.

• Lying is a developmental milestone and a sign of executive functioning in the brain.

• The earliest lies are told to prevent a child from getting into trouble — “Did you hit the dog?” “No.”

• Lying generally peaks in early elementary school-aged children, then goes down as children enter preteen and teenage years, although the nature of the lies changes.

• Older children are more likely to tell pro-social or “white lies” to benefit other people's feelings, whereas young children are more likely to tell lies to benefit themselves.

• Researchers found talking to children about the benefits of telling the truth is more effective to reduce lying than to tell them the downfall of telling lies (“Telling the truth is brave” vs. “Lying is wrong.”).

— Information from Kang Lee, Victoria Talwar and Angela Crossman