The Truth About Lying

Four-year-old Billy stealthily creeps into the kitchen.  His target: the cookie jar,              beckoning him from a few feet away in the corner on the countertop.  He tiptoes over and climbs onto the counter, gingerly lifts the lid off the jar with one hand while reaching in with the other.  He feels the moist soft chocolate chip cookies with his fingertips.  His mouth waters in anticipation as he grasps two cookies, then noiselessly replaces the lid.  He sneaks out of the kitchen, down the hallway, undetected, and back into his room.  He knows he was not supposed to eat any more cookies, but he couldn’t bear the thought of Mom, Dad, or his older brother eating them all.  Billy contentedly munches on the cookies, dropping a few crumbs on the floor, and smearing a little chocolate on his fingertips.  Just as he is about to lick his fingers, he is jolted by a loud knock on the door!  Mom walks in.  Her sharp eyes instantly see the crumbs and the chocolaty fingertips.

“Billy, did you take some cookies when I told you not to?”

“No, Mom, I didn’t take any.”

“Billy, I see cookie crumbs on the floor and chocolate on your fingers.  Now tell me the truth.”

“I didn’t,” Billy desperately insists, stamping his foot on the floor and starting to cry.

“Billy, you’re lying to me, and that’s getting you in even bigger trouble.”

Finally, in a flood of tears, Billy confesses, but pleads he took just one cookie.

The truth about lying is that twenty years ago few people knew much about the behavior.  Authoritative, respected texts on child development and/or abnormal psychology did not even reference lying in their indexes. Dr. Paul Eckman, a professor of psychology at the University of California in San Francisco, published the first book about lying based on actual scientific observation and research.  His book, Why Children Lie, reports the results of his research on lying, and some of his findings are surprising.

Why Do Children Lie?

Eckman defines lying as the deliberate attempt to deceive, and according to him  there are at least four distinct reasons why children lie: 1) to avoid punishment; 2) to get their way; 3) to prevent embarrassment, harm, or injury to someone else; and, 4) to boost faltering self-esteem.

To Avoid Punishment—Eckman’s research reveals children begin lying as early as age 3 or 4, and at that age they lie primarily to avoid punishment.  The reason for this is young children live by the pleasure principle which is to avoid pain or discomfort and to seek pleasure or gratification.  When a child is questioned about a misdeed he knows he did, his anticipation of punishment or disapproval creates great discomfort.  Hence, telling a lie immediately reduces his anxiety, because the child hopes the lie will be believed.  In other words, lying at age 3 or 4 is probably a natural, unavoidable part of child development.  Eckman believed this was a crucial age period, which if mishandled by parents, led to chronic lying.

Marjorie Sharmot’s children’s book, The Big Fat Enormous Lie, is about a little boy who lies to avoid punishment.  Once the boy lies, an ugly, repulsive creature appears.  The creature is pathetic, not menacing.  The creature tags along with the boy, growing larger and larger as the boy’s guilt over his lie increases.  Finally, to be rid of the slobbering hulk (to relieve his guilt), he admits his lie.  This story is excellent for children at this crucial age of 3 to 5 years.  One study of children’s lying found 92% of five year old’s said it was always wrong to lie.  So, if the vast majority of very young children believe lying is wrong, most of them experience guilt when they lie.  The Big Fat Enormous Lie is a magical story because it speaks directly to children’s guilt, rather than lecturing or scolding their intellect.

To Get Their Way—lying is sometimes a means to an end.  For example, a child might say she has her homework done in order to keep watching a favorite television program.  Often, children promise to do something in order to get what they want, knowing full well they have no intention of carrying out their promise.  The original, unabridged book The Adventures of Pinnochio by Carlo Collodi is an excellent example of a boy who lies frequently in order to get his way.  However, he repeatedly suffers the adverse consequences of his lies until he realizes his lying is the main cause of all his misery.  I recommend this book be standard fare for night time reading with children between ages 6 and 9.

To Prevent Embarrassment, Harm or Injury—sometimes children lie out of loyalty to friends or others.  They believe they are protecting a friend from experiencing unpleasant consequences such as punishment by grownups.  Children do not like to be called tattletales.  In the teen years, this reason for lying becomes prevalent.  Telling on a friend is tantamount to betrayal, and is not tolerated, even if the teen’s activity is illegal or self-destructive.  According to one study, this type of lying is not considered bad by any age group.  There are two key circumstances where kids lie to prevent harm.  The first is when children are afraid they will hurt someone’s feelings.  For example, Susie may ask her friend, Diane, if she likes her new hat.  Diane may think Susie’s hat looks awful, but will say she likes it.  These are called “white lies” and appear around ages 7 to 9.  White lying is usually learned from adults, but children may also learn to tell white lies in order to avoid being rejected.  The second circumstance is when a child is asked an incriminating question by someone whom they believe intends to do their friend harm.  The child lies to save the friend or sibling.  This is altruistic lying.

To Boost a Faltering Self-Esteem—Sam, Bangs, and Moonshine by Evaline Ness is a Caldecott Medal winner book about a little girl, Samantha.  She lives with her father, a fisherman, near the harbor on an island.  Sam tells lies to impress her friend, Thomas, and to soften the grief she feels over the loss of her mother.  Thomas believes everything Sam says, including her claim her mother is a mermaid, and that Sam has a pet baby kangaroo.  Sam keeps sending Thomas on wild goose chases when he inquires of the whereabouts of the baby kangaroo.  One day Thomas bikes to Sam’s, and asks to see the kangaroo.  She tells Thomas the kangaroo went to visit Sam’s mermaid mother in a cave behind Blue Rock.  Thomas dutifully departs on his bike to search for the kangaroo.  In the meantime, a terrible storm abruptly crashes into the island, and Thomas and Sam’s cat, Bangs, are feared drowned because the tide had rapidly risen with the storm.  All turns out well in the end, but Sam learns the dangers of lying, and is repentant.  Children with low self-esteem or who are troubled over losses, are prone to bragging and boasting.  This type of lying is particularly common among children between ages 7 to 11, when peer acceptance is very important.  Low self-esteem is also sometimes the reason a child lies about another child or a sibling.  They lie about someone else to get them in trouble, thus making themselves feel better.

How to Prevent Lying

There are several actions to take to minimize lying.  Lies told to avoid punishment are more likely to occur when punishment is too harsh or too frequent.  Lying for self-protection will occur less often if children are encouraged and appreciated so they feel secure enough to admit mistakes and misdeeds.  Charles Schaefer and Howard Millman in How to Help Children with Common Problems, advise adults to avoid forcing children to testify against themselves.  They recommend the adult gather all the facts about a situation, and if certain of the child’s guilt, simply approach the child with this information and apply the consequences.  Do not ask questions you already know the answer to.  The scenario with Billy is a case in point.  Mom caught Billy “chocolate-handed,” and instead of asking him if he had taken cookies, she could have said, “I see you have been in the cookie jar.  Now you are going to have to . . . (state the consequence).”  Schaefer and Millman also suggest parents discuss moral issues at various times, and emphasize how lying damages trust which is necessary for people to get along.

Another way to prevent lying in children, is for adults to be truthful.  One particularly important finding of Eckman’s is until about age 8, children consider any false statement a lie, regardless of whether the person who said it knew it was false.  So, if you tell a child you are going to take him to a specific movie, but do not because you forgot to check and the feature is no longer in town, he will conclude you lied to him.  This means you must be careful about making promises, and you must be very conscientious about keeping the promises you make.  If you do not, the child will conclude you are a liar.  Along with being truthful and dependable, be willing to openly admit your mistakes or misjudgments, and to accept responsibility for rectifying the consequences.  Children who observe this are more likely to imitate the behavior.

Lastly, do not call a child a liar.  If you repeatedly tell a child she is a liar, this becomes part of her self-image, and she will act accordingly.

What To Do When Children Lie

Schaefer and Millman recommend penalizing lying.  I agree completely.  This means there may be two consequences—one for the misdeed, and the other for lying about it.  Sometimes the penalty for lying may be more severe than the consequences for misbehavior.  When children readily admit a misdeed, let them know at the time you administer discipline, you are being more forgiving and lenient because they told the truth right away.  Learning to tell the truth is one of the important aspects of the critical development task of moving from having no self-control to having self-control.  (See “Are You Grown Up?) 

It is especially important to penalize children when they lie to get their way.  For example, if you discover a child has lied about having no homework in order to keep watching a favorite television show or play another round of a video game, you might not allow the child to watch the program for the next several weeks, or in the case of a video game, the game is put away for a specified length of time.  Another way to handle this type of lying is to let the child do what he wants only after he has done what he says he will do.  Do not accept promises for later if the child starts to show a pattern of not following through.

When children lie to build their self-esteem, it is important to avoid attacking them.  Rather than call them a liar, or scoff at what they have said, indicate you understand they wish what they said were true, but that it is not the way it is right now.  Ask them what they want, and explore with them what to do to make the present situation better.  In Sam, Bangs, and Moonshine, Sam’s father helps her distinguish reality and fantasy by calling the truth “real” and fantasy or daydreaming out of control “moonshine.”  At the end of the story, he gives her a kangaroo rat he finds on an African banana boat in the harbor.  This makes it less necessary for Sam to lie about having a baby kangaroo.

When children lie to prevent harm to someone else, they believe they are not doing anything wrong.  Adults also generally condone this reason for lying, so punishment is inappropriate.  However, when a child tells a lot of white lies, it may indicate a lack of self-confidence and assertiveness.  The child is so fearful of disapproval or rejection, he cannot be truthful with others.  The focus of attention should be to explore with the child her fear of disapproval and to find ways to build assertive communication skills.

To summarize, lying is a complex process which is finally being scientifically studied.  When a child lies, you must first try to understand why the child lied.  Children usually lie to avoid punishment, to get their way, to boost their self-esteem, or to prevent harm to someone else.  Why the child lied should shape the action you take.  Be sure to handle lying effectively at the critical period of 3 to 5 years of age, which is when lying usually first appears.  Sometimes you need to apply two consequences, one for the misdeed and one for lying about it.  Be truthful yourself.  Do not make promises you cannot keep, because young children believe you have lied to them if you do not keep promises, no matter what the extenuating circumstances.


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