A few weeks ago, as part of his evening ritual, my almost 3-year-old son used the potty, brushed his teeth and climbed into bed. As we were saying our night-nights, he interjected: "Mommy, I need to use the potty." It had been about six minutes since he'd gone. I suspected he was trying out a new bedtime stall tactic, but I couldn't not let him try. He sat on the potty. We waited. Then: "I don't need to go."
I had just caught my son in a lie — the first I'd ever noticed. The next night, it was the same thing all over again. I had no idea what to do.
So I started reading the research on childhood lying. Turns out there's a lot of it, because by studying how and when children lie, psychologists can glean new insights into psychological development. I, of course, was more interested in the practical applications: How do I keep my kid from turning into a sociopath? Dozens of research papers and several phone calls later, I've learned that not only is lying completely normal in kids, it's actually a sign of healthy development. And yes, there are things parents can do to foster honesty in their kids.
If your kid has been lying, "that's very, very normal," explains Kang Lee, a developmental psychologist at the University of Toronto who has been studying lying in children for 20 years. Generally, kids start to lie by around the age of 2 1/2 or 3, usually to cover up transgressions.
When kids lie, it's not a sign that they're on the road to delinquency — it's a sign that they are developing important psychological skills. One is "theory of mind," the ability to recognize that other people can have different beliefs or feelings from you. In order to lie, your child has to realize that although he knows full well that he broke your vase, you do not. Lying also requires "executive function," a complex set of skills that includes working memory, inhibitory control and planning capabilities. Your kid has to hide the truth, plan up an alternate reality, tell you about it, and remember it. Good job, kid!
So kids who lie are demonstrating important cognitive skills. But paradoxically, they also lie in part because they don't have great cognitive skills. Children are emotional and impulsive — they struggle a lot with inhibitory control, which is why, despite your clear instructions not to, they will continue to use their forks as drumsticks and hit their siblings. Then, to cover up their mistakes, they'll lie to avoid getting punished. In other words, kids lie a lot in part because they can't help but defy you a lot, and they don't want to suffer the consequences. Can you blame them?
One easy thing we can do to keep our kids from lying is to avoid setting them up to do so. If you know full well Nathan ate the last cookie, you don't need to challenge him with "Nathan, did you eat the last cookie?'' That's just asking him to fib — he can sense trouble is just around the corner. Instead, say something like, "I know you ate the last cookie, and now you're not going to have room for dinner, and unfortunately the consequence is going to be that you have no cookies tomorrow," suggests Angela Crossman, a developmental psychologist at CUNY's John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Another thing you should absolutely not do, Lee says, is to tell your child that you won't get mad at him if he tells you the truth, and then get mad at him for telling you the truth. It teaches kids that truth-telling gets punished, that they'd be better off lying. "You really have to live up to your end of the bargain," Lee says.
Okay, but when you do catch your kid in a lie, what should you do? First, because lies often go hand-in-hand with misdeeds, you need to separate the two in your mind. You have to address the fact that your kid broke the TV, and you also need to address the fact that she lied about it — but don't conflate the two, because they're different. If your kid broke the TV but was honest about it, you should, hard as it may be, commend her for her truth-telling even though you're ready to kill her about the TV.
"Say, 'I'm glad you told me that it was you who broke the TV, but I'm still really concerned," says Victoria Talwar, a developmental psychologist at McGill University who studies lying in children.
Simply put, the best way to address a child's lie is calmly. Use the moment to talk to him about the importance of honesty. "Point out what he has just done, and tell him what you expect him to do, which is to tell the truth regardless — and tell him why it's important to tell the truth," Lee says. Explain the importance of trust.
Lee cautions against punishing kids — particularly preschoolers — for lying, because they often do not fully understand the concept of honesty. Punishing a kid for lying can also backfire, because kids understand that they only get punished if they are caught lying, so they may continue to lie but simply be more careful about it.
Instead, consider praising them when they are honest and repeatedly stressing the virtues of honesty.
Research suggests that children raised in punitive authoritarian environments — in which they are harshly punished either verbally or physically — are more likely to lie than are children who are punished for transgressions more gently, for instance with time-outs or scolding.
Finally, and perhaps most important: Don't expect your kids to be honest if you're not. "If you are sending your kids the message that truth is really important, but they see you telling occasional small fibs to get out of things, they will see lying as a strategy they can use," Talwar says.
Adults lie so frequently — to kids, friends, our own parents, telemarketers — that we almost don't even notice it. But our kids certainly do, and they love to emulate us. So the next time you catch your kid in a fib, ask yourself whether he may have learned it from you, and then consider giving him a bit of a break. After all, Talwar says, "It's a tricky thing to be honest all the time."
Moyer is a science writer living in Cold Spring, N.Y.