A number of scholars have used variations of this temptation paradigm to test thousands of children over the last few years. What they’ve learned has turned conventional assumptions upside down.
The first thing they’ve learned is that children learn to lie much earlier than we presumed. In Talwar’s peeking game, only a third of the three-year-olds will peek, and when asked if they peeked, most of them will admit it. But over 80% of the four-year-olds peek. Of those, over 80% will lie when asked, asserting they haven’t peeked. By their fourth birthday, almost all kids will start experimenting with lying. Children with older siblings seem to learn it slightly earlier.
Parents often fail to address early childhood lying, since the lying is almost innocent—their child’s too young to know what lies are, or that lying’s wrong. When their child gets older and learns those distinctions, the parents believe, the lying will stop. This is dead wrong, according to Dr. Talwar. The better a young child can distinguish a lie from the truth, the more likely she is to lie given the chance. Researchers test children with elegant anecdotes, and ask, “Did Suzy tell a lie or tell the truth?” The kids who know the difference are also the most prone to lie. Ignorant of this scholarship, many parenting web sites and books advise parents to just let lies go—kids will grow out of it. The truth is, kids grow into it.
In studies where children are observed in their homes, four-year-olds will lie once every two hours, while a six-year-old will lie about once every hour. Few kids are an exception. In these same studies, 96% of all kids offer up lies.
Most lies to parents are a cover-up of a transgression. First, the kid does something he shouldn’t; then, to squirm out of trouble, he denies doing it. But this denial is so expected, and so common, that it’s usually dismissed by parents. In those same observational studies, researchers report that in less than one percent of such situations does a parent use the tacked-on lie as a chance to teach a lesson about lying. The parent censures the original transgression, but not the failed cover-up. From the kid’s point of view, his attempted lie didn’t cost him extra.
Simultaneously as they learn to craft and maintain a lie, kids also learn what it’s like to be lied to. But children don’t start out thinking lies are okay, and gradually realize they’re bad. The opposite is true. They start out thinking all deception—of any sort—is bad, and slowly realize that some types are okay.
In a now classic study by University of Queensland’s Dr. Candida Peterson, adults and children of different ages watched ten video-taped scenarios of different lies—from benevolent white lies to manipulative whoppers. Children are much more disapproving of lies and liars than adults are; children are more likely to think the liar is a bad person and the lie is morally wrong.
The qualifying role of intent seems to be the most difficult variable for children to grasp. Kids don’t even believe a mistake is an acceptable excuse. The only thing that matters is that the information was wrong.
According to Dr. Paul Ekman, a pioneer of lying research at UC San Francisco, here’s an example of how that plays out. On the way home from school on Tuesday, a dad promises his five-year-old son that he’ll take him to the baseball game on Saturday afternoon. When they get home, Dad learns from Mom that earlier in the day, she had scheduled a swim lesson for Saturday afternoon and can’t change it. When they tell their son, he gets terribly upset, and the situation melts down. Why is the kid so upset? Dad didn’t know about the swim lesson. By the adult definition, Dad did not lie. But by the kid definition, Dad did lie. Any false statement—regardless of intent or belief—is a lie. Therefore, unwittingly, Dad has given his child the message that he condones lies.
The second lesson is that while we think of truthfulness as a young child’s paramount virtue, it’s lying that is the more advanced skill. A child who is going to lie must recognize the truth, intellectually conceive of an alternate reality, and be able to convincingly sell that new reality to someone else. Therefore, lying demands both advanced cognitive development and social skills that honesty simply doesn’t require. “It’s a developmental milestone,” Talwar has concluded.
Indeed, kids who start lying at two or three—or who can control verbal leakage at four or five—do better on other tests of academic prowess. “Lying is related to intelligence,” confirmed Talwar, “but you still have to deal with it.”
When children first begin lying, they lie to avoid punishment, and because of that, they lie indiscriminately—whenever punishment seems to be a possibility. A three-year-old will say, “I didn’t hit my sister,” even though a parent witnessed the child hit her sibling. A six-year-old won’t make that mistake—she’ll lie only about a punch that occurred when the parent was out of the room.
By the time a child reaches school age, her reasons for lying are more complex. Punishment is a primary catalyst for lying, but as kids develop empathy and become more aware of social relations, they start to consider others when they lie. They may lie to spare a friend’s feelings. In grade school, said Talwar, “secret keeping becomes an important part of friendship—and so lying may be a part of that.”
Lying also becomes a way to increase a child’s power and sense of control—by manipulating friends with teasing, by bragging to assert his status, and by learning that he can fool his parents.
Thrown into elementary school, many kids begin lying to their peers as a coping mechanism: it’s a way to vent frustration or get attention. They might be attempting to compensate, feeling they’re slipping behind their peers. Any sudden spate of lying, or dramatic increase in lying, is a sign that something has changed in that child’s life, in a way that troubles him: “Lying is a symptom—often of a bigger problem behavior,” explained Talwar. “It’s a strategy to keep themselves afloat.”
In longitudinal studies, a six-year-old who lies frequently could just as simply grow out of it. But if lying has become a successful strategy for handling difficult social situations, she’ll stick with it. About one-third of kids do—and if they’re still lying at seven, then it seems likely to continue. They’re hooked.