The Truth About Kids and Lying

An illustration of a girl in a pink dres with black hair and a white cat on her head covering her eyes.

Psychologist and author Dr Victoria Talwar wants you to know that lying is a normal part of children's development. But that doesn’t mean we should lie to them.

Read on to discover the truth about kids and lying.

Can you tell us about yourself and your work?

I’m a mum, a professor and the Canada Research Chair in Forensic Developmental Psychology. I’m particularly interested in children’s social cognition and moral development. Those sibjects have  been my focus for over twenty years.

Much of my work has been on children’s honesty and their lie-telling behaviours and how we can promote children’s truthful disclosure. This work has then spilled into the legal system and using children’s witness testimonies. Of course, we want very truthful disclosures in court because they’re often about very serious events.

Your work with the courts and children’s testimony sounds interesting.

Once I started my research, I had lots of lawyers come knocking. Obviously, they want to make sure they get accurate disclosures.

Children are often excluded from giving testimony because of competency examinations they might sit first. In the competency exam, the child might be asked about their understanding of truth and lies. If they can’t give adequate answers, the judge might not consider them competent to testify. This is serious, because in many cases their testimony is the key to the case. And if their voices aren’t heard, the perpetrator might get off simply because a child couldn’t give a clear explanation of what a truth is and what a lie is.

But my research showed that children’s abilities to define the truth in a lie has nothing to do with their actual truth-telling or lie-telling behaviour. Many adults know what a lie is and know it’s bad, but it doesn’t necessarily affect whether they tell the truth in court. That's because adults might have other motivators. In actual fact, children, especially young children, are much more likely to tell the truth. That research led to some legal reform here in Canada.

Why does the subject of lying interest you?

It stemmed from my interest in cognitive behaviour. As children get older, they start developing an understanding that other people have thoughts, beliefs and knowledge that are different from theirs. And this is important for development because almost all our social interactions and communication depend on the understanding that people think differently. This is called ‘theory of mind’. And to lie, you have to develop a sense of what you think someone else thinks and knows and then create a false belief for that person. 

When I started my career, there wasn’t a lot of empirical research about when children begin lying. We only had two concepts stemming from folk stories. On one side, we have the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, where a child is represented as the ultimate truth teller. And on the other, we have the Pinocchio story, where children are represented as avid liars. I started doing basic research to understand when children actually start lying and why. And that research is in my book, The Truth About Lying.

Is lying part of normal childhood development?

Yeah, it is. I think most people lie on occasion, but the research shows that, by and large, most people are honest most of the time.

When it comes to children, lying is part of normal cognitive development. Because when they learn that other people have different ideas and thoughts, they are also developing executive functioning abilities like inhibitory control and self-regulation, and their memory improves. That’s because to lie well, you need to self-regulate your nonverbal behaviour, so you don’t give anything away. You also must remember what you said to ensure your subsequent statements are congruent with the initial lie. That’s why, initially, children are really bad at lying. A toddler will have chocolate all over their face but deny eating the cookie. As they get older and their brain develops more, they get better at lying.

I think most parents are shocked when they first catch their child lying to them. But lying is just a by-product of positive cognitive development, and it’s crucial to their future social interactions.

A parent’s job is to help teach the child the benefits of truth-telling and socialise them on how to behave.

Do adolescents lie more than adults?

Yes. We have a bit of an inverted U-curve in terms of lying. Lying emerges around preschool years with little fibs. By adolescence, we see children are more motivated to lie about things that will give them some autonomy over their lives. 

If teenagers perceive a lot of control in their lives, they may be more likely to resort to lying to conceal behaviours they think their parents would disapprove of. Lying is a way to control those behaviours and mitigate negative consequences. But as we move into adulthood, we become less likely to use lying as a social strategy in our interpersonal relationships.

Is it okay to teach our children to lie in social situations that require politeness?

That’s one that parents really have to think about. Some parents believe it’s fine to tell pro-social lies and are comfortable with their children doing it—and that’s okay. But there’s also the option to teach your child how to be polite and consider people’s feelings without lying. 

Parents must think about what they believe is important for children and reflect on their own values. If they are telling their kids that honesty is the best policy, they must demonstrate that in all situations. 

Your book talks a lot about understanding the motivation of a child’s lie. Why is that important?

If you understand the motivation, you can address the actual reason why they lied instead of just reacting to the fact that the child lied. And if we address the underlying motivation, they’re less likely to have reason to lie again. 

Here’s an example I’ve come across: A mother discovered her child was lying about eating lunch. He was getting tired in the afternoon and the teachers contacted the mum, saying, “You need to give him lunch.” The mum had been giving him money for the cafeteria at school. She assumed he was using that money to buy lunch. It turns out that a bully had been taking the money off him, and he had been lying to his mum, saying he was buying lunch.

At first, the mum was really upset when she discovered the lie, because she thought her son was stealing the money. But upon further investigation, the true situation was revealed. Only then could it be dealt with properly—including counselling for the bully and the victim.

But there are also other examples, like when a child lies about their achievements. In this example, they might try to make people think they’re better at things than they really are. We call those lies ‘impression management’, which might be a sign that the child has problems with self-esteem. That’s something you can help your child with.

And sometimes, the lie might be about a fear of consequences. For example, when a child doesn’t talk about cyberbullying, even if they’re victims of it, because they fear the consequence will be having their phone taken away. If we understand the motivation, we might be able to address that fear in advance so they realise they don’t need to lie about it.

How should we react when we catch our children lying?

I talk about a three-step response in my book: remain calm, address the underlying motivation and then discipline the child. 

If you’re really upset, you are less likely to be able to address the behaviour and see the full picture of why your child is lying. That means you’re less likely to find a solution that not only deals with the lie but may also deal with the underlying motivation. If you need to take some time, do it. Tell them, “I’m upset that you lied, and there’s going to be a consequence for it.” Come back to it when you can think properly. But make sure there’s an appropriate reaction in terms of discipline. 

Sometimes it’s not necessary to discipline if it’s a small child and a tiny lie, because being caught out is already a negative-enough consequence. But other times you’re going to have to set an age-appropriate discipline.

We should also take time to educate our children on the importance of honesty. Just don’t do have this conversation in the heat of the moment when you’ve caught your child lying. Do it at another time when your child isn’t feeling defensive and you’re less likely to turn it into a lecture.

How can we teach our children about honesty and foster it in them?

There are many ways to teach kids about honesty. You can have conversations about it and talk about why it’s important, or tell stories about honesty.

And labelling honesty is really important, especially for young children. When your kid tells you the truth, it’s worth saying, “I appreciate that you told me the truth.” That also means you have to be prepared to hear the truth, which isn’t always nice if you’ve spent ages making a really nice dinner and your child says, “I don’t like it.” That’s a very small example, but as children get into their teenage years, they may be doing things you’re not thrilled to hear about. But it’s important to develop a relationship where they feel they can tell you the truth. Even when they think it’s something you won’t be happy about, because it’s better to know what they might be doing and  be part of their lives than have those things hidden. You want to have a relationship where your children feel they can be truthful with you.

Should parents ever lie to their children?

The short answer is no. I know many parents might say things like, “Oh, the ice cream shop is closed today,” and parents need to be compassionate about that because, sometimes, when you have a toddler, you just need to get out of the shopping centre. But you shouldn’t regularly be doing it. And when you catch yourself telling one of those lies, you can use it as an opportunity to problem-solve how to get out of that situation without resorting to a lie next time.

The reason you don’t want to lie to your kids is because research clearly shows that children who have parents who lie to them are much more likely to lie to their parents. Especially as they get into their teenage years and early adulthood. There’s also a higher rate of negative social adjustments—they’ll have negative internalising and externalising behaviours. The bond and the relationship you form with your child need to be based on trust and trustworthiness. That means you must expect and demand it from your children and exhibit and model it for them.

What are your thoughts about lying to kids about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy?

These are cultural stories told on a large scale throughout Western societies, though some people don’t have this tradition. For instance, I am not Christian, and we don’t celebrate Christmas. So, I didn’t tell the story of Santa Claus to my child–of course, he knows about it because he lives in a Western country where the media talks about Christmas for months. 

Unlike many other lies on a personal level, this ‘myth’  has a cultural meaning and tradition behind it. That makes it less easily categorised as a ‘lie’. When everyone subscribes to a tradition, it has a different meaning. 

So, I believe it depends on the parents’ traditions and cultural background. There is no evidence to tell us whether it is good or bad. And given that the majority are practising it, individuals are less likely to perceive it as a lie or having harm. I will caveat by saying: research needs to be done to understand the impact, if any.

Do you have any tips for parents needing to explain the truth about these stories to their kids?

It depends on how it comes up.

If a child asks, “Is Santa real?” or they say, “Brian said Santa Claus is just a story,” you can ask them, “What do you think?” or other reflective questions. Reflective questions enable you to hear their thoughts and let them conclude for themselves. That's important because some children may not be ready to let go of that myth and still want to believe.  

Personally, I don’t think there is harm (again, there is no empirical evidence here) in letting children believe and have the magic of it. As they get older, they will naturally become more sceptical. And if they quiz parents, I think parents should be honest about it and not try to perpetuate the myth beyond the credulity of the child.

Any advice for parents who are unsure whether or not they want to partake in these traditions?

New parents should try to reflect and think about what they want to do and why. People often find themselves in the midst of it without properly considering it. If parents take time to think about what they feel comfortable with and why, they will be more consistent in their behaviour. That consistency allows parents to send messages and demonstrate values to their kids that align with their own values. That will be more satisfying to the parents and give them confidence in their choices.

Anything else on this topic?

This is the topic I dislike talking about the most when it comes to lying, and I try to avoid it because it’s very culturally loaded. However, my last point is the most important one. If we are mindful of what we value and proceed from that place of authenticity, I think we will be more consistent as parents and feel better about our parenting practices. 

What did you learn about parents when writing your book?

I observed that parents worry a lot about their children learning things like reading and writing. And when you ask a parent what they want for their child, they often say things like, “I hope she’s a lawyer.” But they don’t often talk about character traits like honesty or kindness. And at the end of the day, these traits matter and make a big difference to our relationships and lives. We need to place greater importance on these virtues, and as parents, we are our children’s first educators. 

Has your work taught you anything about yourself as a mother?

My work has underscored the importance of developing a strong bond with my child, and how trust is the foundation for everything else upon it. When you have trust, it’s the bedrock of the relationship.

/ / / 

The Truth About Kids and Lying was first published in Lunch Lady Magazine Issue 30. Interview with Dr Victoria Talwar. Illustration for The Truth About Kids and Lying by Sakuya Higuchi.

Tags parenting