For Children, Learning to Lie is Just as Important as Learning to Tell the Truth

Let's face it. Our kids are masters at withholding information regarding a situation. However, children learning to fib is just as important as them learning to tell the truth. Photo courtesy of Grady Reese.

By Justin K. Thomas

July 9, 2018

The ability to lie allows for people to control the world around them. It establishes creditability, and it can negate punishment for wrongdoing. Some lies are “small,” some lies are “big,” and some lies are deemed justifiable if the falsehood increases the probability of promoting the greater good for one’s self or a group people.
But universally, lying is considered a devious act that produces mistrust.

However, children learning to lie helps them acquire skills such the “theory of mind” or the ability know people do not know what they know and “cognitive control” the attribute of controlling when they state the actual truth instead of a lie in a given situation. Two attributes essential for cognitive growth.

According to research conducted by Gail Heyman, a professor of psychology at the University of California San Diego, whose expertise focuses on children and their social cognition, kids typically learn these skills of deception around the age of 3 ½-years-old.

“It’s critical to remember that a child’s discovery of deception is not an endpoint,” Heyman said. “Rather, it’s the first step in their ‘journey’ of cognitive development. After this discovery, children typically learn when to deceive, but in doing so, they must sort through a confusing array of messages about the morality of deception.”

As children mentally develop, they utilize different means to achieve their goals, and that’s important in molding their surroundings, according to Heyman.

“Children are pretty good at turning a bad situation into a good situation,” she said. “This is due to the way kids present information and shape the social narrative. However, this ability to create a specific impression can produce significant consequences for themselves and other people such as their parents.”

Since parents tend to focus more on the negative characteristics of lying, Heyman said that a more communicative approach should be taken because it “does not reduce rates of lying, but rather helps children learn how to lie even better.”

Children lying in sophisticated ways is nothing new for Diana P. Farr, a mother of four adult daughters and grandmother to four grandchildren.

According to Farr, she has heard “every” fib there is. But as a woman that has raised eight kids, she knows that it is essential to explain to children why lying isn’t always the best choice to make.

“Every child will accidentally break something in the house and make an excuse so that they will not get in trouble,” Farr said. “I’ve found that instead of punishing them outright, it’s better to let them know that it’s okay to tell the truth, and that honesty helps to build trust. And that’s the most important thing.”

Heyman also said that it’s essential that parents realize they tell their children not to lie but simultaneously expect them to keep the truth to themselves in certain situations such as being polite to others. And this unwritten rule of etiquette can confuse kids considerably.

“Parents need to recognize how difficult these situations can be for children to navigate,” Heyman said. “Kids often find it difficult to learn from their mistakes after being accused of lying. So, it’s best to inform them of their error by showing it in context of relatable life experience, and they will begin to understand the ramifications.”

In addition to Professor Heyman’s academic and professional expertise, she is the co-author of the articles, Praising Young Children for Being Smart Promotes Cheating, and Generalized Trust Predicts Young Children’s Willingness to Delay Gratification.