As a Developmental Psychologist who studies children’s lie-telling, one of the most common concerns that I hear from parents is, “I’m worried that my child is lying to me”. If you too are worried about your child telling lies, rest assured, this is a normal part of children’s development as they learn to navigate their social world. In fact, my research shows that lie-telling suggests children are developing normally and hitting important social and cognitive milestones.
When do children begin to tell lies?
Commonly, my colleagues and I have found that children may begin to lie as young as two years of age and that by four years of age, the majority of children will tell lies to conceal a misdeed (e.g., cheating or breaking a toy). This high rate of lie-telling is maintained right into middle childhood. This has been consistently found across studies and suggests lie-telling is a very normal part of children’s development.
Why do children lie?
Children mostly tell lies to protect themselves. Sometimes, they lie to conform to social rules (e.g., to be polite). However, lying is a complex behaviour for children to figure out. Generally, parents view lie-telling negatively and while sometimes lie-telling is deemed as bad (e.g., when we lie to conceal a misdeed we have committed), lying is an extremely complicated concept and can sometimes be socially sanctioned (e.g., when we tell someone we like the gift they gave us even though we dislike it). Typically when discussing lying we automatically talk to children about antisocial lies, or lies told for example, to get out of trouble. However, children simultaneously learn that sometimes "little white lies" are okay to spare others feelings (e.g., “I love this sweater Grandma!”). So, it is important to keep in mind that it can be rather challenging for children to learn when they should and shouldn’t tell the truth.
How can lie-telling be seen as a positive sign of development?
But, as a parent, I imagine you’re still wondering how lie-telling can actually be a positive indicator of development. As a developmental psychologist, I see children’s lie-telling as an expression of their social understanding of the world as well as their cognitive development. In order to tell a lie, children must understand that they can first, instill a false belief in another person. This sounds like a simple concept to an adult, but this is a skill that does not typically develop until around 4 years of age (when we see a jump in the rate of children’s lie-telling). Additionally, children need skills such as inhibition (i.e., the ability to prevent yourself from performing an action) as well as memory. These skills allow children to prevent themselves from telling the truth when questioned and develop an alternative statement (i.e., a cover story). What our research has shown is that as children develop these cognitive skills, they are better able to tell lies. Essentially, when a child is telling a lie we are seeing some of their cognitive skills in action!
How can I encourage my child to tell the truth?
Most parents want to know how to talk to their children about lies and encourage them to tell the truth. While there is no method that has been found to completely eliminate lie-telling there are a few techniques that have been found to reduce rates of lie-telling. For example, one of the most effective honesty promotion techniques for children between 3- to 16-years of age is simply asking them to promise to tell the truth (“I’m going to ask you a question and I want you to promise me that you will tell the truth, Okay?”). Although this technique does not eliminate lie-telling, it has been found to reduce lie-telling rates from about 80% to 50%.
Another successful technique that many parents may already use is reading their children moral stories or fables. Recently, I completed a study with my colleagues at the University of Toronto and McGill University examining the effectiveness of moral stories such as Pinocchio, The Boy Who Cried Wolf and George Washington and the Cherry Tree. What we found was that moral stories that highlight the negative consequences of telling a lie (e.g., Pinocchio’s nose growing or The Boy Who Cried Wolf not receiving any help when he needed it) were not effective in promoting honesty. Only stories that highlighted the benefits of telling the truth were found to reduce lying (e.g., George Washington is praised for telling the truth). Generally, these findings suggest that parents should remember to praise their children when they do tell the truth, rather than punishing them for the misdeed they committed.
What should parents remember about children’s lie-telling?
Children begin to tell lies from an early age and are motivated by the desire to protect themselves. Additionally, lying is a sign that your child’s mind is developing and they are learning to engage with the social world around them. So, the next time that you catch a child telling a lie, see it as an opportunity to talk with them about why telling the truth is a good thing … And remember, we all tell lies so don't be too worried that they are too. It's a great sign that their brains are on track!
About Dr. Angela Evans
Dr. Angela Evans is a proud Mom of a 1-year-old girl and is a developmental psychologist at Brock University (St. Catharines, ON). Her research focuses on the influence of children's social and cognitive development on their moral understanding and behaviour. As the principal investigator of the Social-Cognitive Development Lab, Dr. Evans uses fun games and activities to engage children in the research process and to understand what they are thinking and how they interpret the world around them. Dr. Evans studies are interactive and fun for both children and parents. While children complete the activities parents are invited to observe the session from the next room. Come be a fly on the wall and watch your child in action in a study at the Social-Cognitive Development Lab!
The Social-Cognitive Development Lab is always looking for new families to participate! If you are interested in having your child be a part of these studies at Brock University and learning more about their development, please contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit their lab website at www.brockscdlab.com or check out their page on Facebook www.facebook.com/brockscdlab