Study: Your Toddler's a Liar? That's Great!

7 years ago

Most children tell lies, but the better the liar at an early age, the smarter the child, says a study conducted at Toronto University. The advice for parents: Don't be alarmed. If your two-year-old just told a whopper and it made sense, that means her brain has developed executive function, "the ability to invent a convincing lie by keeping the truth at the back of their mind."

The UK Telegraph delivers these study results under this headline, "Lying children will grow up to be successful citizens." Quoting Dr Kang Lee, director of the Institute of Child Study at the university, it says:

“Almost all children lie. Those who have better cognitive development lie better because they can cover up their tracks. They may make bankers in later life.”

None of this surprises me. Remember the old Bill Cosby story about a 15-month-old going after a cookie and how silly it is for people to say children are truthful? When I first heard the story, I thought, what a bright child!

On the other hand, my grandmother used to say, "I keep telling you all about wanting these smart children. They'll use those brains against you."

The study also reminded me of another one I've seen. While writing about the Fox Show Lie to Me last year, I cited 1999 research about lying and social skills that concluded popular children are usually the best liars:

"We found that convincing lying is actually associated with good social skills. It takes social skills to be able to control your words as well as what you say non-verbally," said (University of Massachusetts psychologist Robert S.) Feldman. ... Those youths with the poorest social skills had the most trouble controlling their nonverbal behavior when lying. (Science Daily)

The article quotes Feldman later saying that it's unrealistic to expect the truth. Adults teach children to lie early by teaching them to be polite, he thinks. Consequently, "pretending is part of many children's and adult's games."

That's not news either if you watch humans. In the 1960s, Games People Play: the psychology of human relations by Eric Berne became a bestseller. This book about transactional analysis was still being referenced in everyday conversations when I was a teenager in the 70s.

I bought a copy recently, the 1996 edition. Berne's example of the game "Now I've Got You, You Son of A Bitch" (NIGYSOB) intrigued me because he used the example of a mother interacting with her young son. Hearing a crash in the living room, the mother enters the room and finds only her son and a broken lamp. She invites the child to lie when she asks "Who broke the lamp?" The child blames the dog who is outside. The mother reacts with anger.

Experienced parents know of better ways to handle situations like this, but it's through these types of events that children learn survival skills as well as lessons such as how to not hurt Aunt Sookie's feelings when she asks "How do I look?" Telling her she looks like a clown in her polka-dot muumuu is not the way to go.

Berne's lamp example prompted a memory about a broken lamp from my own childhood. My mother had been a social worker supervisor in Memphis, Tenn., but when I was five months old, she and my father returned to New Orleans, no jobs were available in the city's welfare department. Once I was older and walking, my mother returned to school for teacher certification.

One day while she was studying and I was playing quietly, she heard a crash. Apparently I had broken her favorite living room lamp. Hand on hips, she asked "What happened?" (I relay this according to her old story about me.) My mother said I looked at her and answered, "Go back and get your lessons!"

Was I a strange child? I think I was playing a high-level Matrix game, "There is no lamp." My mom used to call me manipulative. I never thought I was, however, and having been raised with Sunday School lessons, I tried not to lie.

Nevertheless, I remember concocting "stories" to avoid activities such as piano lessons. I was caught in quite a scheme once, and so, I send my sincerest apologies to Ms. Germaine Bazzle, my piano teacher.

That part of my life illustrates that children will lie and harm themselves in the process because they don't know what's good for them. But fibs or not, I was not particularly popular at school nor am I a millionaire today.

So, do my stories or the latest research mean we should stop teaching our children that lying is wrong? JJBrock at the Old Black Church blog appears to think this study may suggest we encourage children to lie. But I don't think the research implies anything like that.

My adult children, who have no trouble disillusioning me when they feel like it, tend to tell the truth. With emphasis on the spiritual and psychological consequences of lying, I taught them during their childhoods that fabrications of alternate realities would not be tolerated in my household. From what I've observed in my 50 years, people who habitually lie are rarely happy.

Still, my teaching them right from wrong does not mean my children never tried the art of prevarication. It means that they learned to evaluate the cost of lying, how lying to others creates trust issues that can ruin relationships, careers, and lives. However, they also learned when to consider Rahab, the woman in the Bible who lied to protect the Hebrew spies from death and was commended nonetheless because of the circumstances and motivation.

Dr. Lee says in the article that lying at an early age does not predict deceptiveness later in life nor indicate who will cheat on exams. Neither does a strict religious upbringing stop children from lying, he asserts. Lee advises that parents who catch children in lies should use those instances as "teachable moments" and not a time to yell and go nuts. And do that teaching early. "After the age of eight the opportunities (to teach) are going to be very rare," he said.

As expected, this study has produced amusing commentary. Jezebel posted a link, and its readers cut loose their opinions. ThusSpakeKate poked at the implication that children who lie will be materially successful, saying:

I call bullshit! I was a compulsive lair [sic] as a child and well into my early adolescence. I am currently funemployed and futureless.

Responding thoughtfully, Cool_as_KimDeal said:

Being able to lie means that a child knows about their audience and their effect on them. It's actually a really sophisticated grasp of language. If a kid doesn't learn how to lie they don't really understand that language is abstract, or that what they say only really matters if their audience understands it.

Proceed with caution as you evaluate the study. It includes statistics that indicate as humans get older, they weigh the costs of misleading others. Most people don't lie readily. In other words, please don't judge me as a liar today because I confessed my childhood lies to you in this post.

Extra: Today the BBC published the article, "Men are bigger liars than women, says poll." Results indicated men lie more often and feel less guilty when they lie than women. Also, mothers are lied to most often. Compare that 1999 study referenced earlier that says "Younger or older females were more likely to excel at lying than their male counterparts." If both studies are correct, then what does that mean? Do men lie more often but women tell more believable lies? Food for thought.

Nordette Adams is a BlogHer CE & you can find her other stuff through Her 411.

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