The vast majority of kids lie. They lie for a lot of different reasons, but the main reason that we want to take a look at in terms of parenting is the fact that the vast majority of parents lie—and that’s where the kids learn not just to do it, but also to use it as an approach to life. We parents generally lie as a way to avoid appearing rude (“this cake is delicious” we say, when we’re actually looking for an opportunity to spit it in our napkin, not to mention where we might hide the napkin), and some of us lie about more serious things (consider the typical high-profile corporate “leader” or “investment genius” who later turns out to be little more than a con-artist, yet who still seems to find time to spawn while bilking the masses; is it really convincing to imagine that their kids don’t know when their parents are criminals?). However, it is worth asking whether the “biggest liars” are the reason our society may be in trouble, or if they could actually be the inevitable by-product of a pervasively lying culture?
Thus whether we tell little fibs or lies with global implications (“What global warming?”) we rarely really think through the implications of our lying in terms of our own well-being and that of our children. Now I want to be clear at the outset, I’m not making the case for total honesty as any sort of moral prerogative—I’d rather leave that to those who are all too ready to tell us how to live and what to do (my “advice” is to run from anyone who purports to tell you how to live and what to do). I’m mostly suggesting that whatever we do, it will be better if we are more conscious about it, and this is where child development and lying intersect in an interesting way. An article in New York Magazine ( http://tiny.cc/L1vWY) outlines some findings of Dr. Victoria Talwar of McGill Univeristy who is a leading expert and researcher on lying.
Okay, the first reason that kids lie is simple: it’s because they can. This comes around age two, and it is actually a mark of intelligence. The ability to differentiate objective reality from an alternate and imagined reality is a creative act; it is also a developmental step. We don’t call novels “lies,” we call them works of fiction (although the line gets increasingly blurred, and people get in trouble for claiming something is non-fiction when it is factually untrue). In working with troubled kids I came to feel that even though they tended to lie through their teeth about all manner of things, there was a certain emotional truth to be found in the lies—particularly the fiction that they were being “good” when in fact they were misbehaving (yes they wanted to avoid consequences, but they also, somewhere inside were “good,” or at least just as good as the rest of us who’d been more fortunate in being loved and supported enough to know how to function in the world, perhaps having learned how to lie in more socially accepted ways).
And this brings us to lying at around age four. This is when the main reason is the avoidance of consequences. Kids don’t like to get in trouble, and so even though you just saw them shove their sibling, or cheat at a game or spill something on the floor they just flat out lie and say it didn’t happen. This is an interesting developmental time where their lying is neither very artful nor convincing. Here it is probably better not to put a child on the spot by asking them to tell the truth about something you just saw, and thus know the truth about. It would be better to directly say, “I saw you hit your sister, you need to take a cool down” than to interogate. We know from politics that the lie is often worse than the original offense, so why put a kid on the hot-seat, especially if they are at an age where lying is almost a reflex (meant to simply not get in trouble) more than a choice?
Not cross-examining children also avoids the ugly dynamic of asking them what we already know (or at least think we know), and then shaming them for lying. A further note on shaping kids not to lie is that a story like “The boy who cried wolf” does nothing to reduce or inhibit lying when researchers study child behavior, however, a story like George Washington telling the truth and being rewarded does inspire kids to lie less. This is a good parenting point in general: show and tell kids strategies for success rather than trying to scare them away from “bad” behaviors.” Further, a suggestion like, “why don’t you help me clean up that spill” is going to do more for both you and your child than something like, “You’re always spilling everything,” or “You shouldn’t have done that.”
Now around six or seven years old kids start to lie as a much more conscious choice. They may lie at school to try and fit in, to inflate their social standing or power and also simply affect the behaviors and attitudes that they see other kids, but especially parents, engage in. This is where our behavior as parents appears to strongly effect lying in children. At six or seven comes a fork in the road where kids begin to taper off and lie less (virtually no one never lies—they find 98 percent of teens admit lying about numerous things to their parents, and I suspect the other two percent just lie about the lying). But at six or seven, lying either starts to become an entrenched approach to life or, where general honesty gets modeled and reinforced as a direction in which as least to trend, lying begins to decrease again.
From a “good feelings that last” perspective, lies are problematic because they erode the sense of trust, and thus closeness, that we have with others. Over time, we are at risk of lying to ourselves, and if we cannot trust, nor feel close with, our own selves, we may end up feeling alienated, unreal and unhappy, like both an impostor and a foreigner in our own bodies. In counterpoint, Carl Rogers, a humanistic psychologist of great kindness stressed cultivating congruence between thoughts, feelings, words and actions. Congruence is the opposite of lying, and it is really something to consider cultivating in ourselves, and our kids, and experimenting with how it makes us feel. Keep in mind, a sudden increase in lying can mark an increase in anxiety or other problems that a child is having trouble managing with truthfulness; we need to be sure to send the message that if they talk about what’s bothering them we will listen rather than shame them or make things worse.
In truth, we humans have a little bit of hero and a little bit of villain, an inner Apollo bringing sun and light, but also an inner Dionysus, Hermes and Mercury—tricksters bringing a darker, but no less truthful truth. There are times where lying is called bluffing (but we’ll have to discuss teaching kids to play poker in another post).
For today, let’s dedicate things to a fuller acknowledgement of our own levels of honesty, taking stock, evaluating which lies we need to stay with and which we could trade up and go with the truth (i.e. “thank you for thinking of me” rather than “I love that combination alarm-clock socket wrench); and think about what you really want to model for your children, and all our collective children—and what paths are most likely to lead to good feelings that last. Do it with your little hatchet.