As parents, none of us likes to think that our child lies about anything. We encourage honesty and integrity in our kids and expect them to tell the truth. But a number of new studies are showing that lying in a child may not be a bad thing or a sign of poor parenting.
According to behavioural experts, there are four main types of lies depending on the intent of the lie. These are:
- Prosocial - where the lie is either to protect someone, to help someone or for their benefit
- Self-enhancement – where the lie helps us save face and avoid embarrassment or to try and get away from disapproval or punishment
Selfish – where the lie is to hide something or to protect the liar at the expense of someone else, the classic ‘she did it!’
Antisocial – where the lie has one purpose - to hurt someone on purpose
Stages of lying
For children, it is considered normal for them to lie as they develop. For example, at preschool age, they will often make up stories about things that haven’t happened or embellish what did happen. This is considered a natural development of intelligence and of a health imagination. Also at this young age, they don’t always understand the difference between what is real and what they image, so in a sense aren’t lying because they don’t know it isn’t real when they tell the story. It is at this age that parents ingrain the telling of ‘white lies’ to avoid hurting another’s feelings.
By the age of five or six, kids know the difference between the truth and a lie so the reasons for lying become more complicated. Prosocial lying becomes more common as the recognition that ‘white lies’ can avoid hurting someone or causing trouble. Sometimes they start to lie to deal with parental expectations, for example saying they did well in a test when they didn’t. They may also use lies to test the boundaries of what they can get away with and to get themselves out of punishment.
When they reach the age of seven, they can not only lie but also keep it going and it is for this reason that children cannot testify in a court of law.
Good lying and bad lying
So how does a parent know if the lying they have detected in their child is a natural part of their development or a sign of a problem? Frequency of lies may be a big indicator – if a child is lying often and about things that there is no real reason to do so, then this could be a sign of compulsive lying and could also be an indicator of other behavioural issues.
Lying combined with other behaviours such as cheating, fighting and cruelty could also be a sign that something needs to be looked at. Finally, lying with no signs of remorse for older children may mean that the child has yet to develop a moral conscience and may need to help to continue their development.
So when a toddler lies to his or her parents, this shouldn’t be seen as negative or a sign of a problem – in fact, according to one recent Canadian study, children learning to lie is an important stage in their development and an early indicator of intelligence. The study also showed that around 90% of children lie by the age of four and don’t turn out to be compulsive liars but simply have good imagination and know what is going to get them in trouble to lie about.