Lying isn’t always a bad thing developmentally
“Why did you put the Magic Marker in the milk?” I heard my sister sigh on the other side of the phone. “Yes, you did.” I could almost hear my blond, curly-haired three-year-old nephew denying it. Finally, she demanded, “Then why is the milk blue?” It was a standoff: a quick-witted mother with facts on one side and a lying little cherub on the other.
Fast-forward a few years, and my older son, about age seven, and I are having a less charming standoff. He stole something, and I know it. I don’t think it or suspect it; I know it. He denies it. The little monster is going down for this crime. I’m not thrilled that he stole a candy bar from the deli, but I am raging that he is lying to my face—repeatedly. I do not like lying.
I lied yesterday. A man was coming to do some work on my house, and he was an hour and a half late. “It is fine,” I said. “I’m just home anyway.” I turned off the oven that held a small chicken I was roasting. I bid good-bye to my dream of a competently cooked meal for dinner. My younger son munched on his leftover Halloween candy before dinner again. “It is really no problem,” I said, gratuitously.
I lied today. One of my students submitted a paper proposal that had no clear topic, suspect grammar, and a startling lack of evidence. “You have a good start,” I lied. “Now we have to narrow your research question and locate evidence.” That part was true.
Lying is tricky. Most of us say that we want to raise children who don’t lie. But when we hear them tell their grandma that they hate the birthday present that she got them, we change our tune. Experts call these little white lies or “prosocial lies.” In other words, there are lies that we tell to make other people feel better and to smooth social life. There are also, of course, “antisocial lies.” My son and nephew were telling antisocial lies to get out of trouble.
Appropriate lying is actually a very socially sophisticated accomplishment. It is no wonder that children so often do it wrong. To complicate matters, children’s moral and cognitive development does not always permit them to lie appropriately. They may fail to lie appropriately by shouting, “That lady is fat!” Or they may tell an antisocial lie to advance their own agenda at the expense of the other person. What, then, do we do when a child lies?
First, it is important to recognize that children go through different stages of moral and cognitive development. A three-year-old who lies may be playing with his newfound autonomy. A child younger than that may not know that she can lie because she doesn’t yet understand that other people don’t think the same way that she does or have the same information. It is also important to note that at this age, some of what adults might view as lying is really storytelling and playing.
Children do not always hold a firm understanding of what is imaginary and what is real. Sometimes, as I suspect was the case with my nephew, young children lie to get out of trouble. But even here, they may begin to almost believe what they are saying because they want it to be true.
By around ages five to seven, children should be able to distinguish a lie from the truth. They are also old enough to understand that they can manipulate others. They may be testing to see what the rules are around lying. It is appropriate to punish a child of this age for a lie and to make clear that lies are not acceptable. It is probably not, however, the time for harsh punishments.
Children in this age group are still developing moral reasoning. Although they may know what a lie is, they may not really understand why they shouldn’t tell one or which kinds of lies are OK to tell and which are not. Parents have the opportunity here to outline their own values about truth and lies.
As children reach adolescence, they should understand both what a lie is and the morality of different types of lies. It is more reasonable to hold them to a higher standard of truth than younger children. Still, teenagers are developmentally very focused on the self and on separating from their parents. They may use lies to protect themselves from parental expectations that they feel they cannot meet or even to carve out a safe and private space away from parental eyes.
It is appropriate to punish a teen for lying, but an overly harsh reaction may encourage the behavior that you are trying to stop. If a teen fears punishment, he or she may lie more to avoid it. Similarly, a teen may lie more to create more distance with a parent he or she feels is being overly intrusive.
All of this is to say that a lot of lying by children is normal. Typically, there is no need for real concern. There are times, however, when more serious intervention is needed. First, if you suspect that your child is lying to cover up any kind of abuse, professional help is your best option. Second, if there is a pattern of frequent lies in one area, such as school or friends, it may signal that there are significant problems in that area and lying is just a symptom. Third, chronic lies, especially in children older than seven, may need to be addressed professionally. Finally, there are several disorders including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and bipolar disorder that can manifest themselves in lying. If you suspect that your child may be impulsive or having other mood and behavior issues, it is worth having the child evaluated. But, for the most part, if your child lies to you, take a deep breath. Your child is just growing up and needs your help to do it right.
Do you have other concerns about your child’s behavior or development? Visit Sister Chat to get advice from other Solo Moms in a no-judgment zone.
Robin Rogers is an associate professor of sociology at Queens College, City University of New York. She lives in Brooklyn with her two boys.
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