Lying isn’t only natural, it’s a developmental milestone for kids
All parents have lied to their kids. And if they say they haven’t, they’re lying. Every parent also knows that their kid will eventually lie to them. Though it can be a little disconcerting when your child lies, it turns out lying is not only something we should expect, it is as natural as your child learning to share or use the bathroom by themselves.
“While parents often find their children’s lies troubling—for it signals the beginning of a loss of innocence—Kang Lee, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, sees the emergence of the behavior in toddlers as a reassuring sign that their cognitive growth is on track,” author and researcher Yudhijit Bhattacharjee says in National Geographic’s June issue “Why We Lie.”
To study lying in children, Lee and his colleagues asked kids to guess “the identity of toys hidden from their view, based on an audio clue.” They tested the first few toys with experimenters in the room, then leave and ask the children not to peek at the toy in question.
For what it’s worth, we would totally look.
Turns out, the percentage of the children who peek and then lie about peeking depends on their age. “Among two-year-old transgressors, only 30 percent are untruthful. Among three-year-olds, 50 percent lie. And by eight, about 80 percent claim they didn’t peek,” Bhattacharjee writes.
As long as intentions aren’t malicious, lying is not something parents should get too concerned about. “Your children are going to lie to you,” Bhattacharjee tells Scary Mommy. It is a natural way for children to counter the imbalance of power between themselves and their elders. “Lying helps kids take away that power from someone else, usually to avoid a punishment or gain a reward.”
In other good news, it appears that children don’t actually learn to lie as a result of us lying to them (which is good because my kids still think the park is closed every Tuesday and I have no intention of telling them otherwise). “Parents’ lying is not what triggers the lying habit of kids. They learn this behavior on their own,” Bhattacharjee tells Scary Mommy.
Telling your child you love every single piece of artwork they bring home is probably harmless — and traditions, even ones rooted in lies, aren’t cause for concern. “Believing in Santa Claus hasn’t produced a screwed up society yet. I don’t see any harm in those kinds of fables,” Bhattacharjee explains.
Consistently lying to avoid a difficult topic, such as sex or illness however, can be a missed opportunity for parents to teach their child healthy coping skills. “When parents tell a child that what they know to be true, in fact is not, they cause their child to choose between trusting themselves and trusting their parents. This is not a choice a child can make and remain intact and healthy,” says Psychology Today. (Annnnd now I regret telling my then four year old daughter that her vagina was, in fact, her “front butt” when she first asked me. I panicked. It happens.)
Just remember actions speak louder than words. If we want to model good behavior, Bhattacharjee says it’s probably best to keep our lying in check. “Most of us naturally understand when we should be honest and consider what we are teaching our kids by lying. After all, they are always watching.”