I can clearly remember the first time I consciously told a lie: My grandmother had given me a raisin cookie to eat, and I decided it would be fun to trick her, so I stuffed the cookie in an antique vase and told her I’d eaten it. I was 4 and remember the thrill of having fooled an adult. Was I a bad kid?
According to new research in child development, my parents should have been grateful that I was a liar. New research from the University of Toronto finds that children who are good liars are more likely to have future social success. “Kids with juvenile delinquencies tend to be poor liars,” says lead researcher Dr. Kang Lee in an interview with CBC News. “Kids who lie early, who lie better, are the kids who are going to develop normally.”
For over a decade, Lee — the director of the Child Development Research Group at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education — has worked with over 2,000 children to try to understand why children lie. While most parents would be concerned to find their toddler fibbing, he says that catching your child in a lie is reason to “celebrate” instead, as they’ve reached a developmental milestone.
So when should you expect your kid to start trying to lie to your face? If your child is lying convincingly by age 2, you’ve probably got an exceptionally smart kid, as Kang found that only 30 per cent of children that age can pull off a good lie. About half of 3-year-olds can lie, and 80 per cent of 4-year-olds can do so.
According to a guide Lee’s laboratory issued to parents of tiny liars, your child should actually be able to trick a competent adult: “Our research shows that police officers, lawyers, customs officers, and social workers (but not judges) cannot even detect 3-year-olds’ lies by looking at their facial expressions,” his team writes. “In children under 7–8 though, it’s not their faces but their choice of words that give them away, as their lies aren’t cunningly crafted enough to stand up to most adult’s scrutiny. But as your kid gets older, beware! After 7–8 years, such verbal statements become increasingly sophisticated, and as a result children’s lies become increasingly difficult for adults to detect regardless of professionals’ training or child care experience.”
So what’s a parent to do? While you should celebrate those first lies, you still have to teach your child the value of honesty. Lee’s team experimented with reading several popular tales to children, conveying the importance of honesty — ranging from Pinocchio to The Boy Who Cried Wolf. But as it turns out, the only story that really had any measurable effect was George Washington and the Cherry Tree, a fable highlighting Washington’s honesty. “After being read this story, children were more likely to tell the truth than if read any of the other stories,” explain the researchers. What was so special about that story? It highlighted the positive impacts of honesty rather than attempting to scare children into telling the truth: “It is possible that the positive message of telling the truth in this story increases children’s truth-telling behaviors (in contrast to the negative repercussions of lie-telling highlighted in the other stories).”
So the moral of the story? Turns out you can’t succeed in modern society without having some finesse for telling little social lies — and those of us still pulling “the dog ate my homework” lies in adulthood probably aren’t going to do so well in life. But we don’t want a nation of tiny sociopaths on our hands, so every parent has to find that tricky balance between accepting that lying is a normal part of life and teaching your child the value of honesty. Good luck!