According to Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in NurtureShock, children “are much more disapproving of lies and liars than adults are; children are more likely to think the liar is a bad person and the lie is morally wrong” (p.81). The intention behind the lie is almost irrelevant to kids. It doesn’t matter if an adult lied as a result of a mistake (“Oops, I forgot that we have to go to the grocery store on the way home, so we won’t be able to go straight to the park” = lie if told that we’d go to the park first thing).
“Any false statement – regardless of intent or belief – is a lie” in the eyes of a child (p.81).
Children also start lying earlier than we may want to believe. By the time they turn 4, almost all kids have started to experiment with lying. I have a 3-year-old, and she’s been lying to me in a teasing way for quite a while now. She holds the power to lie to me, and I have no doubt that she will use it to her advantage quite frequently. “…four-year-olds will lie about once every two hours, while a six-year-old will lie about once every hour” (p.80). That seemed astounding to me when I first read that.
As a result of not wanting to acknowledge that lying is happening, we as parents may not be emphasizing problems with it. If we do not confront the lies but let them pass, thinking that kids will grow out of it, we may be allowing children to think that it’s okay. “The irony of lying is that it’s both normal and abnormal behavior at the same time. It’s to be expected, and yet it can’t be disregarded” (p.90).
Even though children lie, though, the effect of lying can have a big impact on their psyche. Adults asked in a study to recount serious lies often told stories of lies from childhood. According to Dr. DePaulo, “For young children, their lie challenged their self-concept that they were a good child and that they did the right thing.” This is why the memories of the lie stayed even decades after the event itself.
Tip: Don’t trap children in a lie, backing them into a corner so that the lie seems the only way to respond. If you know that a child did or did not do something (draw on a table, not brush teeth before bed), don’t say, “Did you do that?” in a way that they know they did something wrong. Instead, remind the child to draw on paper instead of tables, to brush teeth before reading a book, etc. We can take steps to reduce how often children lie and thus how comfortable they are doing it.
Even though ‘white lies’ can be useful, children seeing adults use them see that the parent is dishonest. If we teach them to use white lies, we still encourage children to be comfortable with being dishonest, even if the intention for the lie is kindness, like trying to spare someone’s feelings. Telling Grandma that the meal she made is delicious may be a lie, but if you’re lying because you want Grandma to feel good, to spare her feelings, there is a kind intent like noted in the video “Can Lying Ever be Kind?” embedded below. The lie protects the relationship and results from your valuing your relationship more than you value having to tell the lie. Side note: videos from School of Life are quite fascinating if you have time to browse.
The reasoning for the lie is complex, and lying itself is complex. Being able to lie earlier is linked to better academic performance because of the thinking that lying requires. You must conceive of alternate realities and be able to try to persuade someone else of that alternative (p.82).
Lying is by far not the only topic discussed in NurtureShock. I’ve been enjoying it and would recommend it.