(Caveat: This essay does not attempt to advise parents of children with ADHD, or addictions, or children with mood or eating disorders. Lying in those situations is a special case, with much different causes and consequences.)
When I first came to Arkansas, many years ago, one of my students told me earnestly how he knew for a fact that original sin was real. “My three year old daughter just started telling lies,” he explained to me, “even though we never lie to her, even though she’s never heard anyone lie. She’s just got a sin nature,” he explained. “It’s in her soul.”
Learning to Lie
A recent essay in Slate, “Children Lie,” reminded me of this student, but also of the many parents, both in the real world and on the internet, I have seen grappling with the issue of how to deal with lying children since.
And before, of course! What to do with kids who lie is a big feature of children’s literature. Who doesn’t remember the appalling narrative arc in Little Men over Nat’s lying? Plus everyone has a family story or six about Grandpa or Aunt Delia getting the tar beat out of them “not for breaking the window, but for lying about it after!”
Always this last line is pronounced with triumph.
Why Do Kids Lie?
Kids start lying at age two or three because that’s when they develop the “theory of mind,” or that important ability to realize that they are able to know and understand the world differently from everyone else; and that by manipulating language, they can control what other people (their mothers and fathers, for instance) know and understand.
So: Mom comes into a room and sees a glass of milk knocked over. “Did you do this?” she asks Sarah.
Sarah, age three says, thinks swiftly: Mom wasn’t here. She can’t know it was me. Let’s just change the world so that it wasn’t me.
Maybe Mom is fooled. “Rotten cat!” she says, and cleans it up.
Wow, Sarah thinks. Sarah doesn’t have much power in the world – she’s three, she weighs 25 pounds, she can’t drive or even tie her own shoes – but she has just learned she has one power: the power to control what Mom thinks is real. That, you have to admit, is fairly cool.
Maybe Mom is not fooled. Maybe she saw Sarah knock it over from the living room. (In which case, Mom is kind of a jerk. Why trap Sarah into a lie? But more on this later.) What does Mom do now?
If she punishes Sarah for lying, does Sarah learn not to lie? Unlikely. Lying is part of her development. Sarah either learns to lie better, or she gets punished, often, and maybe more harshly. Will this teach her not to lie? No, but it may teach her to lie better, and it will almost certainly create animosity between her and her parents.
Mom might tell Sarah that lying is wrong, and explain to her why it is wrong – as the Slate article recommends – but personally I’d advise against that too. Sarah’s three, remember, and this is appropriate developmental behavior.
Different Sorts of Lies and Different Lies at Different Ages
As Sarah grows older, she’ll tell more lies – not fewer. This will be true no matter what her parents do, whether they punish her or whether they don’t, whether they earnestly discuss the ethics of lying with her, or whether they just ignore the behavior. Sarah will lie because lying is what humans do.
Sarah will tell different sorts of lies, and different lies at different ages. The lie she tells about the spilt milk is a self-serving lie, meant to keep her out of trouble, and it’s the kind of lie most of us mean when we say telling lies is wrong.
But there are also pro-social lies, like the one Dan tells in Little Men, when he claims to have stolen money he didn’t, to save Nat from further torment by his classmates. Notice that even Alcott’s text, which has heavily disapproved of lying all through this story arc, approves of Dan’s lie here. Most of us do approve of pro-social lying. (Examples: should you lie if your co-worker asks whether you like his new haircut? Should you lie about how cute someone’s new baby is? Should you lie if the Nazis ask if you’ve seen any Jews and you have six hiding in your basement? And so on.)
As a young child and maybe even into adulthood (I say this as a writer of fiction), Sarah may well lie creatively, making up lies that can’t possibly be true. “Piglet ate my breakfast,” my nephew told us earnestly when he was about three. “He came in the back door. Right there. While you were in the living room. And sat in Daddy’s chair. I gave him all my eggs. And…and…and half the toast.” He paused, thoughtfully. “But he doesn’t like bacon, so I ate that.”
As an adolescent, Sarah will lie because she wants her parents out of her business. These are lies that create space for her to be an independent person, and will often be about nothing serious at all – Sarah may, in fact, lie about extremely trivial matters – or about extremely serious matters. (More on this later.)
So What To Do?
First, don’t trap your kid into lying. If you know your kid did something, call them on it. Say, “Hey, when you spill milk, you have to clean it up. Get a dish cloth and get to it.”
If you do catch them in a lie, don’t make an issue. “Yeah, sure you brushed your teeth. That’s why your toothbrush is dry. Get in there and get it done.”
Don’t punish your child. By this, I don’t just mean don’t punish your child for lying. I mean, don’t punish your child at all.
One reason kids tell self-serving lies – the sort that concern us the most as parents – is from fear. If you punish your child, you create an incentive to lie to you. The harsher the punishment, the bigger the incentive.
You are also creating, for yourself, reasons to distrust your child. You are creating an adversarial relationship between you and your child: you are the police force and your child is a liar and a criminal. This may be not such a big deal at three, when you can (mostly) outwit them; when they are fifteen and seventeen and twenty-two, the situation will be very different.
As your child hits adolescence, and begins to build her identity independent from yours, she may well tell either creative or self-serving lies — that she and her best friend are having a fight (when they aren’t); that she wasn’t on the internet all night; that the cigarettes you found in her backpack belong to a friend and she’s just holding them.
Adolescents lie to create a separate identity for themselves. They do this even when they don’t need to do it. If we as parents create a need for them to do it — by cracking down on small lies and on this normal development of their identity — the lying and the distrust will only escalate.
Are You Saying It’s Okay for Kids To Lie?
Yes, I am.
Not all lies are alike, and clearly, there are some kinds of lies we want to discourage; but on the whole, lying, like any other human activity, is a skill set. We want our children to know how to use it.
The facts are, there may come a time when your child will need to lie, either now or as an adult. She may need to lie to an abusive partner; he may need to lie to a man with a gun (as Vicki Soto had to during the shooting at Sandy Hook). She may need to lie one summer day when she is thirteen, home alone, and sitting on her porch, when a passing and very creepy man asks her if parents are at home.
To lie well, your child needs experience at it. Like any other skill, it needs to be practiced to be acquired. When the Nazis knock on the door and ask about the Jews, is that the first time you want your child trying to lie?
What About the Ethics of Lying?
Yes, you will definitely want to discuss the ethics of when it is right to lie and when it is wrong to lie. This won’t be when your kid is three or six or ten. Wait until they’re thirteen or fifteen. Adolescents love this sort of ethical grappling. Wait until adolescence for the heavy ethical lifting.
Can’t I Just Hint That Self-Serving Lying Is Wrong?
Sure. Again, not when they’re three, or six, or nine. When twelve, maybe, use moral suasion on them when they lie to you.
Give them that Mama Stare (or Daddy Stare) right in the eye and say, “Do I lie to you? Then why would you ever lie to me?”
Note that for this tactic to be effective, you will have had to have spent the past twelve or thirteen years never – not even once – lying* to your child.
But I recommend that anyway. If you want a child who doesn’t lie to you – honestly? – that is the best way to accomplish it.
*Other than creatively, of course! Tall tales and April Fool’s jokes and so on are fair game.
(Images: Parson Weem’s Fable, Grant Wood [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Cat by Cooper Burgh; Newborn By SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)