Why Kids Lie Ⅴ - Woodmam

For two decades, parents have rated “honesty” as the trait they most want in their children. Other traits, such as confidence or good judgment, don’t even come close. On paper, the kids are getting this message. In surveys, 98% said that trust and honesty were essential in a personal relationship. Depending on their age, 96% to 98% will say lying is morally wrong.

But this is only lip service, for both parties. Studies show that 96% of kids lie to their parents, yet lying has never been the #1 topic on the parenting boards or on the benches at the playgrounds.

Having lying on my radar screen has changed the way things work around the Bronson household. No matter how small, lies no longer go unnoticed. The moments slow down, and I have a better sense of how to handle them.

A few months ago my wife was on the phone making arrangements for a babysitter. She told the sitter that my son was six years old, so that the sitter knew what age-level games to bring. Luke started protesting, loudly, interrupting my wife. Whereas before I’d have been perplexed or annoyed at my son’s sudden outburst, now I understood. My son was, technically, still a week away from his sixth birthday, which he was treasuring in anticipation. So in his mind, his mom lied—about something really important to him. At his developmental stage, the benign motivation for the lie was irrelevant. The second Michele got off the phone, I explained to her why he was so upset; she apologized to him and promised to be more exact. He immediately calmed down.

Despite his umbrage at others’ lies, Luke’s not beyond attempting his own cover-ups. Just the other day, he came home from school having learned a new phrase and a new attitude—quipping “I don’t care,” snidely, and shrugging his shoulders to everything. He was suddenly acting like a teenager, unwilling to finish his dinner or complete his homework. He repeated “I don’t care” so many times I finally got frustrated and demanded to know if someone at school had taught him this dismissive phrase.

He froze. And I could suddenly intuit the debate running through his head: should he lie to his dad, or rat out his friend? I knew from Talwar’s research that I’d lose that one. Recognizing this, I stopped him and I told him that if he’d learned the phrase at school, he did not have to tell me who had taught him the phrase. Telling me the truth was not going to get his friends in trouble.

“Okay,” he said, relieved. “I learned it at school.” Then he told me he did care, and gave me a hug. I haven’t heard that phrase again.

Does how we deal with a child’s lies really matter, down the road in life? 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.

Dr. Bella DePaulo has devoted much of her career to adult lying. In one study, she had both college students and community members enter a private room, equipped with an audiotape recorder. Promising them complete confidentiality, DePaulo’s team instructed the subjects to recall the worst lie they’d ever told—with all the scintillating details.

I was fully expecting serious lies,” DePaulo remarked. “Stories of affairs kept from spouses, stories of squandering money, or being a salesperson and screwing money out of car buyers.” And she did hear those kinds of whoppers, including theft and even one murder. But to her surprise, a lot of the stories told were about situations in which the subject was a mere child—and they were not, at first glance, lies of any great consequence. “One told of eating the icing off a cake, then telling her parents the cake came that way. Another told of stealing some coins from a sibling.” As these stories first started trickling in, DePaulo scoffed, thinking, “C’mon, that’s the worst lie you’ve ever told?” But the stories of childhood kept coming, and DePaulo had to create a category in her analysis just for them.

“I had to reframe my understanding to consider what it must have been like as a child to have told this lie,” she recalled. “For young kids, their lie challenged their self-concept that they were a good child, and that they did the right thing.”

Many subjects commented on how that momentous lie early in life established a pattern that affected them thereafter. “We had some who said, ‘I told this lie, I got caught, and I felt so badly, I vowed to never do it again.’ Others said, ‘Wow, I never realized I’d be so good at deceiving my father; I can do this all the time.’ The lies they tell early on are meaningful. The way parents react can really affect lying.”

Talwar says parents often entrap their kids, putting them in positions to lie and testing their honesty unneccessarily. Last week, I put my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter in that exact situation. I noticed she had scribbled on the dining table with a washable marker. With disapproval in my voice I asked, “Did you draw on the table, Thia?” In the past, she would have just answered honestly, but my tone gave away that she’d done something wrong. Immediately, I wished I could retract the question and do it over. I should have just reminded her not to write on the table, slipped newspaper under her coloring book, and washed the ink away. Instead, I had done exactly what Talwar had warned against.

“No, I didn’t,” my daughter said, lying to me for the first time.

For that stain, I had only myself to blame.
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