The Upside of Lying

by ParentCo. January 31, 2018

young girl sneakily feeding the dog at dinner table

“Did you just feed the dog broccoli? The broccoli I told you to eat before you could have dessert?”

“No,” she says.

Dog is under table licking something.

“Did you?”


“Yes, she did!” her brother howls.

Siblings are really just vigilantes fighting for justice, truth, and equal consumption of vegetables. Without her brother as testifying witness, I would probably still be having the broccoli discussion.

I am not a proponent of lies. Generally speaking, I am anti-lie. However, I'm tired. I fight this battle every day on multiple fronts – they lie over who hit whom, who took what favorite toy, why all the toilet paper is unraveled into the toilet, who covered the sheets with crayon, who still needs to go to the bathroom before we leave the house. Meanwhile the dog is chock full of vitamin C and farting peaceably under the table. So I will take the upside when it's offered.

Lying, it seems, is a sign of intelligence in kids. According to the New York Times, children who lie tend to have higher verbal I.Q. stats, and they also have better “‘executive functioning skills’ (an array of faculties that enable us to control our impulses and remain focused on a task) as well as a heightened ability to see the world through other people’s eyes.”

This last one is the one that gets me. Is lying actually linked to empathy? Could it be that this practice shows that my daughter, the artful dodger of truth, is able to anticipate my reaction to her actions and therefore manipulate me based on her intuitions? Could this be a good thing?

Psychologist Kang Lee would tell me that “ying, in other words, is good for your brain,” at least developmentally speaking. It promotes creativity, problem-solving, and language skills in young kids. It makes sense in a way. It takes a fairly high level of calculation to decide whether the truth or a lie would bring about the most positive outcome and then craft the most believable lie that fits the occasion.

That being said, I think we can all agree that the need for honesty is paramount. Surely we can put that higher I.Q. to better use.

Lee suggests that there are ways to turn the tide in your favor. The best way to curb the lying? Let them see “others being praised for honesty” because it “promotes honest behavior” in themselves. If they see you celebrate others for telling the truth, they will want that kind of feedback. Praise for honesty makes them feel good and gives them a much-needed shove in that direction.

It sounds so simple. Too simple. I tried it out.

I thanked my son for his honesty when he confessed, unprompted, that he hid the remote so we couldn’t switch off his favorite show. It’s “Paw Patrol” for life around here. After the standard never-hide-things-in-this-house-because-it-is-already-a-pit speech, I praised the living daylights out of him for his truth-telling. In the periphery, I watched his twin sister study us, creatures in the wild enacting a new ritual.

That afternoon, she ran into the kitchen with her hands raised like a marathoner crossing the finish line.

“Mom, I shoved all the coloring books under the couch!”

“You what? Wait, why?”

“So no one else could use them when I went upstairs.”

“Um, okay. So don’t next time?”

“Okay, but at least I was honest, right?” she said, and tucked her hands behind her back, waiting for the praise.

She’s a frighteningly quick study. I hugged her and thanked her for telling me. Then we colored.

It doesn’t work every time, and I can see how this might turn into a lie-plus-admittance-equals-praise spiral towards chaos. However, if she’s as intelligent as her devious behavior predicts, then I will work towards the good in it. I will move that empathy in our favor.



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