Even the most honest people lie from time to time. Who hasn’t said when asked, “Oh yes, that new hair cut looks great on you,” or “The chicken casserole was wonderful,” or “What a beautiful baby!”
Children usually begin to lie around the age of 4. This is when they begin to comprehend that other people have thoughts that are different than theirs. Early lies are usually stories, exaggerations, or attempts to get out of trouble. For example, a girl might tell a story about a bear coming into her room at night, a boy might tell someone that he can fly, or a girl might blame the family cat for breaking a lamp. Children at this age don’t think about whether or not dishonesty is right or wrong. They are playing with language and ideas. Grown-ups are usually pretty tolerant of this sort of lying.
Over time, most children begin to learn that dishonesty is not acceptable. Caring parents tell their children to tell the truth. Most parents can recall saying something like, “If you don’t tell me the truth, you’ll be in big trouble,” or “Don’t lie to me.”
However, for some kids, telling lies becomes habitual. These children continue to lie throughout childhood, adolescence and even into adulthood. When adults lie, they are generally trying to do one of the following:
1) Get out of trouble. The most common reason for telling a lie is to avoid punishment. For example, “Officer, I was only going 35 miles an hour,” or “I’m sorry about being late, traffic was horrible.”
2) Protect themselves or people they care about. This one is about excuse making. “I tried to call you but my phone battery was dead,” or “He really didn’t mean to be rude, he was just tired.”
3) Look better than they are. “I always eat healthy and exercise daily,” or “I read to my kids every day,” or “I never lie.”
4) Get something they want. For example, “I had to pay for my kids to go to the doctor and I’m a little short this month, can you help me out?” or “Do you mind picking the dog up from the kennel? I have to work late and might not be there on time.”
People who lie routinely as adults often don’t get the same feedback as kids. When a child lies, parents or other caregivers confront them. But with adults, lies are often disregarded by others. For example, if you know your cousin is exaggerating about his money (to look better) you might just let it go. Or if you’re a passenger in the car that is pulled over and the driver tells the police officer that she was not speeding, you’re pretty unlikely to interrupt and tell the officer, “I saw the speedometer and she was going 10 miles an hour over the limit.” Or you may have heard the dead phone battery excuse too many times to believe but you let it go, knowing that confrontation will only bring on defensiveness.
Unfortunately, that lack of feedback is one reason adults who lie often become chronic liars. They don’t realize that others are on to them. That’s sad because chronic liars lose a priceless part of intimacy. They lose respect.