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Four Truths About Lying

The real reasons kids tell fibs

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Lying is a sign of learning, so there's no need to panic when your little one tells you a whopper.
Find out the reason kids lie.

As parents, we value honesty in our kids. After all, it’s the best policy, right? Maybe, but maybe not, as kids who lie—and lie well—are actually showing off some pretty smart skills.

It’s not easy to witness a lie, whether you catch your preschooler literally red-handed and she denies coloring on the wall, or she spins a tall tale about seeing her goldfish take a stroll outside the bowl. But if you can step back from worrying, you can begin to appreciate the brainpower that it takes to tell a lie. These four surprising facts about falsehoods might help you gain that perspective.

Lying Is Normal (Ain’t That the Truth!)

For preschoolers, lying is developmentally appropriate. That means it is something kids can, and should, be doing at that age. By age four, most kids (about 80 percent of them) can tell a convincing lie. And what’s so intriguing about this is that it takes both social skills and cognitive skills to lie: Children need to be able to grasp why a lie might be appropriate, and how another person might perceive the situation, which calls for pretty advanced thinking. For example, a child might lie in an effort to avoid punishment, or to try to attract a friend’s attention and admiration.

Cognitively, lying is a challenge because it demands memory and reasoning: If I say I didn’t take the scissors, a child might ponder, then I won’t get in trouble for breaking a rule. The child needs to know the rule, remember the consequences for breaking it, predict what happens when he breaks the rule, and come up with a way to change the outcome. Pretty clever!

Kids Lie Just as Adults Do (Truth Be Told!)

Adults lie for many reasons, and so do children. Think about it: how many times have you lied, just today? Sometimes it’s actually the polite thing to do (“Yes, I love your haircut!”), and sometimes it’s about covering up (“Yes, I just put the check in the mail this morning.”).

The same goes for kids. They learn to lie to avoid trouble, to smooth things over with a playmate, and even to spare an adult’s feelings. And sometimes they lie just for the fun of it (as with that goldfish taking a walk).

Kids Who Lie Are Smart and Creative (Honest-to-Goodness Truth!)

To tell a convincing lie, kids need to know that their thoughts can be different from the thoughts of others. Child development experts call this theory of mind. It’s a pretty mind-blowing concept, when you think about it, and it takes intelligence to master. Lying also requires a good verbal memory—being able to recall a lot of words at once, another sign of intelligence. And when kids tell a lie, they have to control their impulses and behavior—say, to avoid blurting out the truth. That’s a power that can definitely be used for good, as in waiting to be called upon in school or even refusing to take the bait when a sibling teases.

Then there’s the creativity of being able to come up with a lie, plausible or not. Kids who tell fanciful tales (even if they aren’t convincing as lies) are displaying their creativity and willingness to tell a good story. Those are certainly positive traits, too!

Kids Are Lying Right Under Our Noses (Gospel Truth!)

Parents often don’t realize when their little ones are fibbing. In one research study that examined this, parents did a poor job of detecting when their kids were lying to them. The researchers speculated that because of their close relationship with their kids, parents have a “truth bias” that prompts them to believe what their kids say—even when it’s untrue.

This doesn’t mean you need to be suspicious of everything your child says—especially since telling a convincing lie is actually a sign of intelligence. But it might affect how you react when you do uncover an untruth.

How to Respond to a Child’s Lie

After you congratulate yourself for raising such a clever kid, you can use a lie to teach a life lesson about honesty.

If your child is lying to cover up a misdeed, explain to him that you value honesty—and tell him that the lie is more troubling than the original misbehavior. This appeal to morality can really work, according to a study that looked into how kids perceive threats about punishment after lying. Turns out those threats don’t stop kids from lying in the future. Instead, offer praise for honesty when your child admits that he’s done something wrong.

If your child is lying to show off (“I can run a mile in one second!”), avoid embarrassing her in front of her pals. Gently acknowledge that the statement is an exaggeration, and then move on: “Wow, wouldn’t it be amazing if humans could run that fast? We could get to Grandma’s house in seventeen seconds! Now, who wants to blow bubbles?”

If your child is lying to express creativity (“My friend Nick can throw a ball all the way to outer space!”), give him other chances to invent imaginary worlds. Play with puppets together, offer dress-up costumes and props, and have him dictate stories to you that he can also illustrate.