Who would have thought that kids’ fibbing can actually be a good thing? Here’s what research says.
1) Kids’ ability to lie is an important developmental marker
Children’s lie-telling behavior has received much interest in child development research. Researchers have found that children’s ability to lie successfully is actually a developmental marker.
In one study, researchers sought to examine how kids’ lie-telling ability developed. 150 3- to 8-year olds participated in the study. Each kid was asked to play a guessing game. The kids had their backs turned to the researcher who played a sound from a toy. They were instructed not to turn around during the game.
Each time they heard the sound, the kids were asked to guess what toy the sound came from. All the toys were picked from programs and stories the kids were familiar with and had familiar accompanying sounds. After proposing 2 toys, the researcher left the room after telling the kid that third toy was on the table. The sound from the third toy was left on. This sound was unrelated to the toy (it came from a greeting card) and it was therefore impossible for the kid to guess the identity of the toy correctly.
The kid was asked not to peek at the toy when the researcher was out of the room (one minute). The kid’s actions were recorded using a hidden camera. When the researcher came back to the room, kids were asked whether they had peeked.
This study came to the same conclusion as other similar studies. Most kids peeked, then lied. An important finding was that being a successful liar signalled kid’s development in executive functioning (the development of skills such as planning, flexible thinking, emotional control, perspective taking, focused attention, etc.)
The study found that younger children were unable to “cover their tracks”. They were incapable of maintaining the consistency between their lies and the responses to the follow-up questions. In other words, their lying was obvious.
Older kids were able to better explain how they knew the identity of the toy. Although the study found that other factors such as cultural contexts, parenting styles and intellectual ability may influence lie-telling behavior, children’s ability to successfully lie indicates cognitive sophistication, an ability to maintain consistency between statements during deception and an ability to understand other’s minds.
2) Savvy liars are bound to have better social success
Kang Lee, a researcher from the University of Toronto who has spent over 20 years analyzing why kids lie, suggests that kids’ ability to successfully lie indicates normal growth and future social success.
Lee suggests that the earlier kids can tell a successful lie, the more likely they are to encounter social success. He bases his arguments on the fact that most people consciously lie once or twice a day, and asserts that kids who have learnt to tell “white lies” are more successful as they are able to protect others’ feelings and are less likely to be caught in lies and thus become socially ostracized.
David Livingstone Smith, the author of the book “Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind” also seems to suggest that “misremembering” is a “necessary evil”. In other words, the earlier kids understand when it’s socially appropriate to lie and when it isn’t, the more likely they are to encounter social success.
Things to keep in mind
It is from around age 7 that kids really understand about lying so it is important to have clear rules about lying. All lying is not similar. Between ages two and three, your kid does not lie on purpose. Lying at this age is often a manner of experimenting with language or an attempt to get out of trouble when he or she breaks rules. 3- to 6-year olds often tell tales but don’t really understand the impact of lying.
Before you get excited about the great things in store for your savvy liar, your kid needs to know that lying is wrong. Kids often lie because of many reasons such as high parental expectations, low self-esteem, punitive environments, etc. It is important to be clear about your lying philosophy with your child and to live in a way that reflects that philosophy.
Remember that when a child consistently lies even when there’s no reason to, he may be in need of professional help.