Nurture Shock: Chapter 4

{This is the fourth in a series. Click here to read more.}

Why Kids Lie

or Lying Liars and the Liars Who Love Them

At the beginning of the school year, when I’m getting to know my students and building the community in my classroom, we invariably have a discussion about lying and what happens when you lie. I tell my students this story:

When I was 3 or 4, I went to a preschool that had a huge outdoor space with a ginormous oak tree, and swings and slides, and wooden boats and planes you could sit in and pretend to drive. There were also goats and chickens and ducks (one time a goose chased me around the yard and another time I fell off the monkey bars and sprained my wrist, but that’s not really in this story.) Anyway, I loved going to school there, and I have many fond memories of the things we did, like churning butter and painting outside on the easels and singing in the spring musical (I still remember the song “Yellow, Yellow Daffodils”).

Well, one memory I have is not so great. One day, when my mom picked me up from school, I had a Barbie doll with me. Now, I had not taken a Barbie doll to school with me that day, so my mom asked me where I got the doll. Cool as a cucumber, I replied, “So-and-so gave one to every girl in the class.” Now, do you think I was telling the truth? No? Well, you’re right. I wasn’t. I lied – to my mother! Can you believe it? I had really, secretly taken the Barbie doll from a girl in my class when she left it on one of the swings, and I hid it until it was time to go home, and then I sneaked it into the car with me.

{At this point, there are gasps from the audience and some girls will put their hands over their mouths, shaking their heads in disbelief!}

I continue my tale:

Well, do you think my mother believed that story?

“No!!!” my students all cry! There is usually some giggling, and then I tell them how my mom found out what I had done and made me take the doll back to school, give it to the girl, and apologize. Then we talk about all the “wrongs” in the story and how we won’t lie in our classroom, blah, blah, blah.

Now, everything in that story is true. Except one part: my mom believed me when I told her the child had given a doll to every girl in the class. She totally did. I kept the Barbie and went on about my merry way, probably not thinking once about how the other little girl felt about losing her doll. It wasn’t until later, when I was about 12 or 13, that I confessed to my mother, spilling my guts about how naughty I’d been. During the same conversation, I also ‘fessed up to not really liking the ant farm I got one Christmas. To this day, I remember crying when I told my mom the truth, and it’s now a family joke, especially the ant farm – I got one for my “class pet” one year.

Parents do not want to believe their children lie, yet it happens all the time. Young children, learning how to please adults, will often say what they think the adult wants to hear, even if it’s not exactly the truth. And the truth is, we inadvertently model lying for our children: when we pretend not to answer the door when a nosy neighbor rings the bell; when we get pulled over for speeding and tell the officer we didn’t see the speed limit sign; when we say, “I’d love to watch the Disney Barbie Princess video with you – again.”

Then there’s the gift-opening situation, when great-aunt Kitty Belle gives you a hand-knitted sweater – in your favorite colors of orange sherbert and purple haze. Of course, you exclaim, “How wonderful! It will go perfectly with the new pair of jeans I just bought!” and then promptly put it in the bag to go to Goodwill.

The aforementioned scenarios are meant to be humorous and the lying innocuous, employed to save face or to spare the feelings of someone we love. But children are watching and learning, and they pick up on the fact that sometimes, it’s okay to lie.

Bronson and Merryman spent a considerable amount of time with a child psychologist in Canada, Dr. Victoria Talwar, researching information for this chapter. Dr. Talwar has done extensive studies on children and lying, exploring everything from how long it takes a child to peek at a toy when an adult researcher briefly leaves the room to whether adults can tell if children are lying on videotape about being bullied (usually not.) Her research has led to changes in the Canadian legislature regarding children testifying in court cases.

In “The Peeking Game”, the researcher tells a child he will win a prize if he correctly guesses three different toys by the sounds they make. The first two toys are easy guesses – a police car with a siren, a baby doll that cries. The third toy is trickier – it’s a plush soccer ball, and to make the noise, the researcher cracks open a greeting card that plays a tune, in this case, “Fur Elise” by Beethoven. Clearly, there is no way for the child to guess that the toy is a soccer ball from the noise. Before the child can guess, the researcher leaves the room for a few minutes, telling the child not to peek while she is gone. Inevitably, the child peeks – some take only a few seconds, others last longer – but the temptation is just too strong.

What happens next? In a typical scenario, the child identifies the third toy as a soccer ball and then lies about peeking. When the researcher asks the child how he knew it was a soccer ball, the child lies to cover up the fact that he peeked. The older a child is, the more likely it is that he will lie. When a 3-year-old plays the peeking game, she will peek but then confess when questioned about it. 80% of 4-year-olds not only peek but also lie about peeking. According to Talwar, lying is a “developmental milestone.” A child has to be old enough to ascertain the truth and then to construct an alternate  reality and present the new “truth” to someone else. This takes skill and cunning, and the more successful a child is at lying, the more she will do it.

As children get older, they lie both to avoid punishment for wrongdoing and in consideration for someone else’s feelings. Most of the time, we consider the latter reason acceptable and polite. We do it ourselves (see aforementioned orange and purprle sweater example) and coach our children to do it in similar situations. How many times has a birthday boy opened up a present he already has, his mom signaling with her eyes not to mention it. “Gee, thanks, but I already have two in my closet” doesn’t really cut it, does it?

As for lying to avoid punishment, parents and teachers observe this daily.  A young girl will lie about something her parent witnesses her doing.

“Did you take that toy from your brother?” Mom knowingly asks. “No,” the 3-year-old innocently replies.

When children get older, they learn that it is better to lie only about something the teacher has not actually seen with her own eyes (well, mostly this is true!)

“Did you empty the soap dispenser and smear soap all over the counter and the mirror?” the exasperated teacher inquires. “No, ma’am,” the student politely responds. In the child’s mind, only a partner in crime or an innocent bystander can corroborate the story, and, who knows, maybe no one else will come forward!

Bronson and Merryman report that one way to coax the truth out of a child is to reassure the child that you will not be upset if he committed the wrongdoing in question and will, in fact, be happy if he tells the truth. This is more powerful than saying, “I won’t be mad at you, and you’ll feel so much better if you tell me what you did.” (I plan to alter my language next year accordingly.)

One of the most informative sections in this chapter was the one on tattling. Really, if  I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard “He took my pencil”, I’d be a millionaire (or at least a thousand-aire!) And if I dealt with this type of “reporting” each time it occurred, I would spend the day refereeing pencil grabs. I do think it is important to teach children how to deal with petty squabbles themselves – she won’t let me sit next to her, he said a bad word – it empowers them to be problem-solvers. But I also want them to know that there are times when they should tattle (like when someone empties the soap dispenser in the bathroom and smears the soap all over the counter and the mirror.) We should encourage older children to report incidences of theft, graffitti, vandalism, and bullying, although by the time these behaviors start occurring, children have become experienced liars and those who “rat them out” are ostracized.

Honesty is the best policy, and most parents and teachers reinforce this message with both their speech and actions. It just might take some subtle changes in language and non-verbal cueing to help children embrace this value and make it their own.

3 thoughts on “Nurture Shock: Chapter 4

  1. This was an excellent chapter (and thanks for the reminder/summary).

    My practice these days (for better or worse) is when the kids tattle, I say, “OK, why are you telling me this?” Which helps me figure out how to respond. Often they need help negotiating a solution with their sibling–if that’s the case, the follow-up is usually “Well, what have you tried?”

    Sometimes they just need to vent, and that’s fine. Or they want to get their sibling in trouble. Less fine, but not a big deal on balance.

    But it makes so much sense that we WANT kids to learn when it’s appropriate to report and when it’s not. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Yes, actually…

    1. Ah – I usually jump to the second question right away. Should start off with “Why are you telling me this?” (preferably w/out that “are you trying to drive me crazy?” tone in my voice!) to find out the motivation and then go from there. I didn’t do as much work this year on how to solve those problems on your own. Must do better next year, especially helping them distinguish what they should try to handle themselves from what they should bring to me (or another adult.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *