Paul Ekman, Ph.D. in 1989 devoted an entire book about kids and lying, called Why Kids Lie, to this topic. For some of his data, he drew from a landmark study, the largest one has ever done, which was conducted in the 1920s by psychologists Hugh Hartshorne and Mark May. For a more up-to-date (2009) review of the research, there is a chapter in the book Nurture Shock by Po Bronson entitled, perhaps not coincidentally, Why Kids Lie. Bronson cites research done by Victoria Talwar, Ph.D. Both sources indicate the major reason children lie is to avoid punishment. Kids also lie to avoid embarrassment, to protect their peers, to protect their own privacy, to increase their own status through boasting and, usually not appearing until adolescence, to test and challenge authority. When a parent has found out that their child has lied to them, they usually focus on the motive for the lie and its consequences in judging the lie’s seriousness. Thus Ekman advises parents to first determine what they think is the motivation for their child’s lie in order to be better able to know how to deal with it.
Smarter kids were found to lie as often as less intelligent kids when there was no chance of being caught. On the other hand, when there is a chance of being caught in a lie, then smarter kids don’t lie as much as less intelligent kids, perhaps because they are better able to estimate the odds of detection. Because parents are the people kids initially model their behavior after, kids who lie the most often come from homes where their parents often lie and/or endorse breaking the rules.
At the age of three or four, children become capable of telling a deliberate lie. Children from age five to eight consider all lies to be wrong. Kids slowly become able to consider intent as a relevant variable in judging whether a given lie is wrong or not. By age ten, most children are able to lie to adults without being caught. By age eleven most kids demonstrate awareness of the harm to others caused by lying. As kids become older, they also become more skilled in detecting when they are being lied to. If kids see parents lying as a way to avoid conflict, they will copy that behavior. Adolescents turn toward their peer group for information about how to behave and so associating with peers who engage in antisocial behaviors, including lying, has been shown to predict that the adolescent will be at increased odds for getting into trouble themselves.
The experts have advice for parents on how to respond to their children’s lying. Increasing the threat of punishment for lying only makes children more aware of what it will cost them if they are caught lying. Kids who live with the threat of constant punishment lie more and become better liars at an early age. Because kids generally want to please their parents, it is necessary that parents tell their children that they will be pleased if they tell the truth as well as offering immunity for telling the truth. In addition, parents should avoid entrapping their kids where they put them in the position to lie. If a child winds up lying repeatedly because parents are testing their honesty, this lying decreases the guilt that usually accompanies a lie when it is first told.
Research has also found that lying tends to be associated with other indicators of maladjustment. If a parent finds out that their child’s lying has increased in frequency, then it is time to take notice. Hopefully, the lying can be resolved within the family. If this is not working, then perhaps consulting one of the therapists at STA who specialize in working with children’s problems would be the next step for a concerned parent to take.
Find the truth by calling our intake specialists today to learn more about kids and lying at 201-488-6678 to schedule an initial appointment.