My kids lie about all kinds of ridiculous things. My teens lie about who finished the last of the Chunky Monkey ice cream, if they have homework or not, and if they really logged out of Netflix last night. The little one lies about changing her underwear or how many forkfuls of greens she’s eaten or insisting that, yes, she totally did too brush her hair. Meanwhile, it looks like she just stuck her finger in a socket. Dude, you are not fooling me.
Honesty is highly valued in our family, as it is in most families, I suppose. We want to believe we have open, trusting relationships with our kids. We want them to grow up to be truth-telling, dependable adults. Maybe even more importantly, we don’t want them to do crap they feel they need to lie about, like sneaking beer from the fridge, TP-ing the neighbor’s house, or getting pulled over for running a red light.
Our kids have been low-level lying since there were toddlers. Back then it was about who did what and denying any kind of wrong doing on their own part. While it’s disconcerting when your kid lies, it’s also totally normal. One study, conducted by Professor Michael Lewis of Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, asked 2 and 3-year-olds not to peek at a toy when left alone in a room. The large majority of kids totally peeked, then lied when the researcher asked them about it. For kids who are 6 and older, the deception rate is 100 percent. Every kid who peeked at the toy lied about it.
See? Your kid is not the only lying face liar.
I grew up in a house where lying was the ultimate sin, but that didn’t mean I was always honest. I’d lie about small stuff, like finishing off the last of the cookies and, when I got older, bigger stuff, like saying I was at Kathy’s house when I was really with my boyfriend. If my parents busted me, they’d remind there was no way they could trust me with the car keys if I lied about where the last few Chips Ahoy disappeared to.
I use that same line on my kids: how can I trust you with big stuff if you lie about little stuff? Don’t kids who lie end up on the run for laundering money for whack-job drug lords like that guy on Ozark?
In fact, lying might not be as bad as we think. Turns out it’s totally normal for kids to lie and, according to the research, a sign of intelligence. That’s right: kids who lie have higher verbal IQs than those who don’t.
In the toy experiment, researchers found the liars’ IQs were as much as 10 points higher than the honest kids. So I guess that would make my kids bonafide geniuses. Hallelujah! (Side note: the kids with the highest IQs were those that never peeked at the toy in the first place, but that’s really rare).
There are other cognitive benefits associated with lying. Research by Dr. Victoria Talwar of McGill University and Dr. Kang Lee of University of Toronto shows that kids who lie have better executive functioning skills (things like self-regulation, impulse control, planning, and flexibility), and ability to see the world through the perspective of others.
In addition, according to Lewis, lying is not only associated with a higher IQ, but also higher emotional intelligence. “The children who are more emotionally stable, these are the ones who are likely to lie than to tell the truth,” he said in an article on ABCNews.com.
There are many reasons a child, or anyone really, might lie and some of them are worthwhile. For example, the 8-year-old who was expecting her grandparents to give her a much-wanted skateboard only to rip the wrapping off an American Girl doll. She smiles, tells her grandparents she loves the doll and gives them a big hug. This is lying to save the feelings of others and most of us want our kids to know when and how to do this.
Kids also lie to avoid punishment, which is a form of self-preservation, also a good skill to have. Finally, we all lie to ourselves, telling ourselves we’re too busy to go to that party we weren’t invited to anyway. Why beat ourselves up if we don’t have to? It’s a way to preserve our self-esteem.
The challenge for parents is how to raise kids who are smart enough to lie but still understand follow some sort of moral compass. We want them to lie when it’s beneficial without harming others, but we don’t want them to become master deceivers who end up running illegal multi-million dollar Ponzi schemes that land them in the state penitentiary. How do we teach our kids that honesty is the best policy?
Researchers Talwar and Lee found that punishment for lying doesn’t work as well as being praised for honesty. Letting your kids know how happy you are when they tell the truth goes a long way. Who doesn’t want positive affirmation when they do the right thing? When a child pledges not to lie, that also makes a difference. Even young kids who might not really get what it means to make a promise, understand what it means to agree to do something.
And, if all else fails, give ‘em cash. That’s right: Professor Kang found that offering kids money to tell the truth worked, but only once the incentive to come clean was 1.5 times the payment for lying. Apparently our darling angels are good at driving a hard bargain.
The bottom line is, kids lie and now research tells us it’s because they’re smart. So maybe lying is a good thing? Well, at least not that bad.
And if you need to get at the truth, just wave a couple Benjamin Franklins around and in no time little Caden will spill the beans about what really happened to your favorite yoga pants.
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