Parents often tell children not to lie. People are at times shocked when their sweet prince or princess tells their first very obvious lie and seek to correct the behavior. Lying is viewed as morally wrong and parents think part of their role is to nip this behavior in the bud. I am sometimes sought out in my clinic to help with the lying behavior of a child.
Many parents are surprised when I tell them I was excited by my children’s first lies. I remember whispering to my husband in delight “Guess what …” the first few times my children told a lie. There are a couple of reasons why I found my children's first lies wonderful.
Firstly it told me they had become aware that I didn’t know everything that they knew. In psychology, we call this theory of mind. It’s not the case that young children who don’t lie are especially good, it’s just that they think adults hold exactly the same knowledge that they do. The arrival of the first lie is a time of celebration, in my opinion, because it means your child has reached a developmental milestone.
The other reason is that lying is an important human skill. Lies are sometimes necessary for human survival. Can you imagine the scenario where a captor said, “Will you be here when I get back?” and the only option was to tell the truth: “Actually I was planning to escape because you haven’t worked out the door doesn’t lock properly?” Some social situations require subtle lies to avoid hurting people’s feelings unnecessarily. Otherwise “are you enjoying the lasagna?” might be truthfully responded to: “I hate lasagna and this one’s the worst I’ve ever tasted.”
Children need to learn to lie to navigate our social world. This means children need to practice telling lies. In their practice they gain skills from reading people’s reactions. Is my lie plausible? Do they believe my explanation? These experiences can also help children better perceive if others are lying to them. Our role as adults is to let our children know when we have caught them out in a lie and provide gentle guidance.
Recently I came across another reason for why being able to lie is good for children in a research study. The study looked at whether children would lie to help prevent a theft or harm occurring to another person, even though they knew that lying was morally wrong.
The researchers, led by Teresa Harvey, examined what five- to eight-year-old children did in this situation. The team undertook three different experiments with a total of 270 children. They wanted to know under what conditions children would misdirect one child who was seeking another child in a park. The researchers call this an interventional or pro-social lie.
The researchers used a range of felt-board story scenarios. They presented children with scenarios and then asked questions about their comprehension of the story and what the children would do. In the each experiment, children were given two scenarios.
In the first experiment, the children needed to give directions to someone who wanted to steal a toy from a child called Alex or to someone who wanted to give cookies to the Alex. In the theft story, they were told “Jamie will take Alex’s toy.” Older children lied more often when the seeker intended to steal a toy. This suggests older children were able to see that lying is sometimes necessary to prevent something wrong happening.
In the second experiment, the scenario was varied. The harm to Alex of the toy being taken was either emphasized “Alex will be sad if his toy was gone” or there was no mention of the impact on Alex. All ages of children lied more often when the possibility of harm to Alex was mentioned.
In the third study, the researchers described taking the toy as either a theft – “Jamie will not give the toy back to Alex and Alex will be very sad” – or a positive action: “Jamie took the toy so he could give the toy back to Alex when he saw him later. Alex will be very sad when he realizes the toy is missing.” Children of all ages were more likely to lie when the theft was emphasized.
The study findings suggest that by the age of five years of age, children are able to lie to prevent a bad outcome for others. This is most likely to occur when both the moral transgression and the potential harm to the victim are prominent.
This study shows that being able to lie is an important a pro-social behavior for children. As parents, our role is to help guide the nature of lying and shape it over time. Please avoid hefty punishments or shaming children for lying. Remember, your children are practicing a skill for which they are yet to understand the nuances of.
Instead, gently let your child know you are aware of the lie. It’s the difference between saying “Something is not adding up here for me. Let’s talk about it,” compared to “You are naughty! We don’t tell lies in our family.” Discuss the pros and cons of the particular lie in that moment in a non-judging way.
Holding discussions in your family between necessary lies and unnecessary or harmful lies can be helpful. Using stories and metaphors to help explain the problems of some types of lies can also be helpful. Lying is a part of the human skill set. Let’s help our children learn how to handle lying appropriately.