The next time your child vehemently denies eating any candy (even though the chocolate smeared on her face tells a different story) or says “It wasn’t me!” while standing next to the shards of what used to be your favorite vase, don’t panic. According to researchers, catching your child telling tall tales marks a key milestone in their cognitive development.
Dr. Kang Lee, a professor at the University of Toronto, has spent more than two decades studying how and why kids lie and is convinced that the emergence of such behavior in toddlers should be a cause for celebration, not alarm. He considers the behavior a reassuring sign that kids’ cognitive growth is on the right track and that it doesn’t necessarily indicate that they’re primed for a lifetime of trouble.
Small Kids, Tall Tales
If you’re constantly floored by your kid’s blatant deception and worry that he or she will be a pathological liar by the time they hit adolescence, this should put your mind at ease: It’s perfectly normal childhood behavior.
Even more comforting is the realization that most children tell fibs at some point. Research shows that kids start lying at a very young age, with 30 percent of verbal 2-year-olds giving it a go. By age 3 about half of them are doing it and at age 4 the number goes up to 80 percent. By the time kids get to ages 5 to 7 nearly all of them can pull off a convincing lie. So your kids are in good company.
As children grow, they experiment with the truth with varying degrees of elaboration — and success. Toddlers are only starting to develop their sense of self and don’t quite grasp the difference between truth and fiction so they tell classic self-serving lies, known as primary lies, which are easy to catch. However, they do become better liars with age. By age 7 or 8 they’ve progressed to tertiary lies and can make follow-up statements to keep their untruths consistent, stumping most adults.
A Sign of Healthy Child Development
Catching your kid in a lie can be troubling but it turns out that it’s a sign of their healthy development. Research conducted by Dr. Lee and others suggests that children who lie have:
- Better executive functioning skills. Simply put, executive functions are a set of mental skills that help you stay on task and get things done. They help you manage yourself and the resources available to achieve a goal. As research has shown, kids who lie demonstrate good working memory, which is required to remember details of the truth and separate it from their fibs. They also have better inhibitory control, shown by how they squelch the urge to tell the truth as well as the ability to shift focus, plan ahead and go through with the lie.
- More advanced cognitive development. Cognitive development refers to how a person thinks, explores and figures out the world. Children who lie have a heightened ability to see the world from another person’s perspective, what is called the Theory of Mind. This helps them realize that their actions might make you distressed, angry or upset, causing them to use lies to cover up what they’ve done.
- Higher verbal IQ. Coming up with nicely crafted stories involves a complex process and is indicative of your child’s verbal intelligence. To come up with a lie, your kid needs to analyze information and use language to try reason with you and well…tell you a lie. This shows that they can process information and solve problems using language-based reasoning.
- Higher creativity. Some of the tall tales our kids weave are real feats of imagination. It’s quite impressive what they can come up with from imaginary friends to tales of adventure. Whichever way you look at it, it takes creativity to pull off a credible lie.
What to Do When Kids Lie
Knowing that lying is an indicator of a child’s intelligence presents quite a paradox for parents. Sure lying might mean your kid is intelligent, but you also want them to be honest. So how can you get them to value honesty?
For starters, realize that corporal punishment might be counterproductive. Instead, use more positive messaging and feedback to emphasize the benefits of honesty. So show your approval whenever you catch your kid being honest. Additionally, cultivating an environment of open communication with your kids will help them feel comfortable talking and disclosing the truth.
Above all, be a good role model for your kids to emulate. Children are keen observers and seeing you being dishonest will undermine your message of honesty. So watch what you do and say.
Evans, A. D., & Lee, K. Emergence of Lying in Very Young Children. (2013, October). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3788848/#R24
Sundance Academy. Improving Communication with Your Teen – Infographic. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.sundancecanyonacademy.com/improving-communication-with-your-teen-infographic/
Talwar, V., Gordon, H. M., & Lee, K. Lying in the Elementary School Years. (2007, May). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2597097/
Talwar V., & Lee, K. Development of lying to conceal a transgression: Children’s control of expressive behaviour during verbal deception. (2002). Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1080/01650250143000373
Toddlers who lie ‘will do better’. (2010, May 17). Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/10119297