Sweet Little Lies: Lying as a Developmental Milestone
By Heather Hack-Sullivan
“I cannot tell a lie….” six-year-old George Washington
Many of us know the famous story about the young George Washington who cut down his father’s cherry tree and when questioned about it said bravely, “I cannot tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.” With this his father replied, “Such an act of heroism in my son, is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold!”
Ironically this story about the virtue of truth-telling is itself a lie. This story was told by one of Washington’s first biographers after his death to impress on readers that his public successes were due to his private virtues. This tale was in children’s first McGuffey readers and has been told as a morality tale for years.
Lying is an uncomfortable subject and honesty is a virtue to be upheld and strived for. We want to be honest and we want our children to be honest. There has however, been recent research that shows that being able to tell a lie, and even learning how to tell a believable lie is an important developmental milestone--one that is related to intelligence.
Telling a lie requires skills--you must recognize the truth, conceive of another reality, and then convince someone else of that reality. This skill requires that you can imagine the thoughts and motivations of another person (go to this link to see the experiment designed by Alison Gopnik that shows how this skill is developed by about 18 months of age: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GkYQg0l5bMY). Children who begin lying at 2-3 and can lie in a believable way at age 4-5 show more academic skills. This doesn’t mean that lying should continue and isn’t problem behavior if it becomes a coping skill to deal with social situations.
When children first start to lie, they are hilariously bad at it (see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uFlO7lPUeIc). They get better as they begin to understand what could be believed and have more reasons to tell lies. Often lying starts to avoid punishment and then lying becomes a social tool--to increase power, to not hurt someone’s feelings, to keep a secret, to get attention.
As parents we often react in a way that may encourage lying by making it easier (psychologically at least) to tell a lie. Children want their parents’ approval (more on that later) and also want to make us feel better--if we may be upset with the truth our kid may be motivated to tell us something that will spare our feelings.
We also tell “white lies”--a lot. And our kids are listening and watching. Adults (research shows) often approve of these white lies--things that are said or ways we act so as not to hurt others’ feelings. . Tattling is another thing that is often discouraged because the goal is to have kids to be able to increase their social problem-solving skills. For young children this can be confusing and seems like they are being asked not to tell the truth. Another milestone is not tattling--tattling is often thought of as something “little kids” do--and once you are a teen there is often pressure to not “rat” a peer out.
So what is a parent to do? When you understand the motivation behind lying you can name it in the moment and without the threat of punishment. Often when young children lie, a parent asks, “Why did you lie to me?”. It is probably easy to see why. Instead, “That’s not true. You will feel better and I would be happier if you told me.” We also ask questions we know the answer to, inviting children to lie when they hear disapproval… “Did you draw on the table?” A reminder about drawing on paper or an invitation to help clean it up would not give that invitation to lie. This strategy also holds true with teens who are in the developmental stage of testing limits and approval. But with a strong relationship and without threats of punishment we can stay open to hearing their experiences and be someone they can come to at least some or most of the time.
One interesting study measured the rate of children’s lying after hearing either the story of “Never Cry Wolf” or the aforementioned “George Washington and the Cherry Tree”. Which do you think decreased of rate of lying and which story increased lying a little more than usual? 75% of people polled thought that “Never Cry Wolf” would motivate children to decrease their lying since the story tells of the dire consequences of lying--the boy is eaten by a wolf after repeated lies! But instead the study showed that hearing the story of young George telling the truth and being praised by his father decreased lying 50-75%! Studies have shown that just removing the threat of punishment is not effective (i.e. “You won’t get in trouble if you tell me”). The statement of our feelings of approval if the truth is told is the most powerful motivator.
Building honest relationships with our children, being honest with ourselves (even about our lying), naming our own motivations and feelings, and removing threats of punishment will lead to kids/teens/adults who are mostly honest. And in the end it certainly makes life easier; as Mark Twain explains,”If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.”
NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman
When Children Begin To Lie, There's Actually A Positive Takeaway by Majorie Rhodes https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2017/10/02/552860553/when-children-begin-to-lie-theres-actually-a-positive-takeaway
The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life by Alison Gopnik
The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children by Alison Gopnik
Heather Hack-Sullivan is the proud mother of a VFS alum. She has taught infant/child development at the college level for over 20 years. She is a home-birth midwife, a sometimes-knitter, an avid karaoke-singer, chicken-keeper, childbirth educator and loves to swim in Battleground Lake.