Do you remember the first time you caught your child in a bold-faced lie? Perhaps your son told you that he had not stuck his finger in the chocolate cake but the telltale sign of chocolate on his cheeks told you the real story. Or you saw your daughter smack her sister but she vehemently denied it. Or you ask who let the bird out of the cage and the one possible culprit in the family says that Daddy did it.
Perhaps you worried if this was a serious warning sign about the future character of your child or wondered whether or not this kind of behavior was normal. This blog will hopefully clear up any misconceptions you might have about how often young children, teens, and adults lie and why they (we) do so. (Sorry, but you’ll have to wait for the next blog to learn what you can do about it.)
When Is a Lie Really a Lie?
At what age does a child really understand the concept of truth and falsehood? Researchers have been studying this for many years in order to determine at what age children’s testimony in court should be considered valid. Psychologists had to determine under what conditions might a child lie even when under oath.
Researchers concocted various kinds of studies to answer this question. One of the most common designs is a temptation experiment. In this study, preschool children of different ages are left for a few moments in an empty room. The experimenter tells them not to peek at a toy placed on table behind them while he is gone. When he returns five minutes later, 90% of the toddlers have looked at the toy, and only one-third of the children tell the truth when asked. Another third simply lies, saying they didn’t peek and another third pretends not to hear the question.
These findings are consistent with past research which shows that somewhere between the age of 2 and 3, most all children lie when they have done something they know they were not supposed to do. At this age, they don’t really know how to cover their tracks, so to speak, so their lies are usually ineffective and obvious for parents to distinguish. This is the same age that “no” becomes their favorite word, so what will be the probable answer of “Did you take another cookie after I asked you not to?”
By the age of 4, the majority of children will lie to get out of trouble, to look good in front of others or simply to get what they want. It is, in fact, a developmental milestone of sorts. Kids this age are smart enough to be more deliberate about getting positive attention and avoiding punishment. Generally, the smarter a kid is, the faster he or she learns how to manipulate the world around them and the people in it. Unfortunately for parents and teachers, as every year goes by, kids get better and better at covering up their lies.
Numerous experiments have also shown that when adults are shown videotapes of kids telling stories about something that happened to them, most people are completely unable to tell which kids are telling the truth and which ones are lying.
In fact, some interesting and noteworthy biases are present. For example, people are more likely to think girls are telling the truth than boys when in truth there is no difference. They believe introverted kids are lying more often when the opposite is true.
If you are a parent reading this, you are probably thinking that you know your kid and would be able to tell. The research shows something different. Police officers score worse than chance and customs officials the same as chance (it is a 50/50 shot). Parents watching videos of their own kids test only slightly higher than chance. Teachers come out ahead at around 60% but that means they too are wrong at least 40% of the time.
This is extremely important information! Why? Because adults too often believe that their kids are telling them the whole truth. The consequence: mom and dad don’t form a team, parents undermine teacher’s authority, sides get taken inappropriately.
Rumors often run rampant when kids go from mom’s house to dad’s house. “Dad yelled at me!” might mean that Dad was firm about bedtime; “Mom doesn’t make me eat vegetables” could be a bold-faced lie. “My teacher picks on me” could conceivably FEEL true to your child but not BE true. So take what your child says with a grain of salt…
It isn’t until around age 11 or 12 that kids, when asked why lies are wrong instead of saying “because you get in trouble for them” or “it’s against the law,” begin to talk about the harm they can cause. This internalized sense of right and wrong marks the beginning of a more mature sense of morality. Older kids have more guilt about lying because they now have more awareness of how it destroys trust and hurts relationships.
That being said, the research on just how much lying goes on is both enlightening and perhaps shocking. Dr. Nancy Darling, while at Penn State University, conducted a set of interviews with teens in which they felt safe enough to disclose just how much of the truth they kept from their parents. A whopping 98% confessed to lying to their parents.
Typical topics included things like how they spent their time while parents were at work, when they started dating, how they spent their allowance, when they spent time with friends their parents didn’t like, what movies they saw and who they went with, what clothes they wore when out with friends.
They also lied about even more important things like alcohol and drug use, driving in cars with kids who’d been drinking or smoking, and going to parties or homes without adult chaperones. In short, parents have to assume that teens are–at a minimum–not sharing the whole truth. We can’t all be the 2%, now can we?
Obviously teens are lying to parents for many of the same reasons young children do–to be able to do what they want, when they want, and with whom they want. But that’s not the only reason.
It turns out that the motives behind lying are more complicated. Often teens lie because they don’t want to disappoint or worry their parents. They believe that their parents are being too overprotective or controlling, and feel they really can take care of themselves and each other.
They also lie when they feel the rules are less than fair. They lie to protect their friends and to maintain their friendships and social standing.
So the plot now thickens…Think about it. As an adult, don’t you do similar things for the same reasons? You tell “little white lies” so as not to hurt someone’s feelings. You pretend to like a gift, act friendly to someone you can’t stand, or laugh at a joke that offends you.
You buy some new clothing or spend money on lottery tickets and keep this secret from your spouse. You arrive late to work and provide what you think will be a valid excuse (even if it’s not the truth). Studies show that adults also lie–some a little and some a lot.
Our kids are exposed to headline news chockfull of stories of liars, cheats and thieves–many of whom go unpunished, many of whom remain rich and famous. Before we think too poorly of kids today and judge them for being less than honest, we better take a good hard look at what we adults are teaching them and how to do better.