Don't panic if you catch your child in a lie. Mastering the art of fibbing is a key achievement in your kid's cognitive development.
There are days when my four-year-old, Addyson, could rival Pinocchio with the lies that fly out of her mouth.
I’ve seen her rip a tiara out of her little sister’s hand, then deny it without missing a beat. She’ll tell me Daddy said we can have Wendy’s for dinner, and when I ask Daddy what’s wrong with the chicken that’s thawing for supper, he’ll say he never offered a trip to the drive-thru. This is a kid who can have chocolate smeared all over her face, stare me in the eye and assure me she hasn’t had a single bite of candy.
Robin Farr says her son, Connor, four, is also going through the lying stage. “He’s testing out the full gamut of lies with us — big, small, silly, mean,” she says. “He’s lied about flushing the toilet and washing his hands, even when we don’t hear the toilet or the tap running. Or he’s unravelled a whole roll of toilet paper, then lied about doing it.”
If you’ve noticed your kid’s elaborate tall tales (and worry you won’t be able to trust a word she utters by the time she’s a teen), this should put your mind at ease: They all do it.
“Lying is typical behaviour for preschoolers, and part of normal development,” says Kang Lee, a professor at the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study at the University of Toronto, who studies the development of lying in children. Lee’s research has shown that kids generally begin to tell lies in toddlerhood, and almost 100 percent of kids fib by the time they’re six. “Lying reflects that the child’s cognitive ability has reached a new milestone — it means they have started understanding that they can use words to instill false beliefs into the minds of their parents,” he says. They recognize they’ve done something wrong and they’re trying to avoid punishment.
Lee says parents play a role in teaching our kids to fib. “Children are socialized to tell lies. For example, when they receive an undesirable birthday gift, parents want them to be polite, and ultimately teach them to tell white lies.” However, knowing when to tell a white lie helps kids develop social understanding and healthy relationships with others. Blunt truths (such as openly disliking a present) are considered bad manners; we’d rather our kids display gratitude.
Children this age have a specialty when it comes to lies — they are masters of telling transparent untruths, like when Addyson tells me she’s eaten all of her cereal when her bowl is still full, right in front of her. “Their lies are not very good, and they tend to leave telltale signs that incriminate their deceit, like that full bowl of cereal,” Lee says. Once kids reach seven or eight years old, their dishonesty becomes more sophisticated.
When young Connor is caught trying to feed his mom and dad a bunch of balderdash, Farr says they always call him out on the lie. “We ask, ‘Are you lying?’ He responds, ‘No,’ then ‘Yes.’ He’s at the stage where he will always admit it, and then we reinforce the message that we don’t lie.” Lee says parents who are “lucky” to catch their child lying should use the situation to discuss what a lie is, why lying is morally wrong and what’s expected of him when similar situations occur. “Seize the opportunity to teach them instead of having a laugh and moving on,” says Lee.
Did you know? According to Po Bronson, a co-author of NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children, 96 percent of all children lie. Only one-third of three-year-olds lie, but more than 80 percent of four-year-olds lie (usually about once every two hours). By six, kids lie once every hour, on average.
A version of this article appeared in our January 2013 issue with the headline "The littlest liars," p. 52.