Head of School Blog

When Children Lie

Jill Singleton
Upon returning to the United States after a lovely trip to Costa Rica few years ago, I was at the airport at the final stage of the customs checkpoint. The airport was on high alert as a result of a recent foiled terrorist attempt; everyone was stressed and on edge – myself included. Answering the routine questions related to the whereabouts and length of my trip, I waited with anticipation for customs official to stamp my passport and seal the deal with the familiar and magical words: “Welcome home!” But my sought-after comfort was momentarily derailed by the last question: “Did you bring any food or other agricultural products with you?” I answered this in the routine negative when my younger son piped in, with alacrity – “Yes you do, Mom!” Of course this drew a look from the customs official who had been otherwise on automatic pilot. Eli was referring to the souvenir coffee and chocolate I had in my bag, and fortunately the official believed me. I walked away from the line working hard to swallow the anger and frustration I felt toward my son.

I was reminded of this incident this week upon hearing a story here at school involving a mom who noticed that one of the eggs in her refrigerator had gone missing. Her daughter claimed she “had no idea” what might have happened to the missing egg. Having heard a lot about the chicks at school in the past two weeks, this mom went on an adventure into her daughter’s bedroom and found the missing breakfast item wrapped lovingly in a
blanket under the child’s bed.

When our children are young we report these stories with a sense of humor and understanding. It is fascinating to watch the child brain develop before our very eyes, seeking to make connections or control the actions of the universe – playing with what we would consider “fixed” ideas in new ways. After all, it’s okay to tell a “white lie” and it’s rather endearing to think that an unfertilized egg might hatch into a chick in your very own bedroom. If these behaviors persist into a child’s later years, we grow concerned that perhaps they are not figuring out the subtle nuances of truth and fiction. However, child psychologists (and this Head of School) would argue that we parents prematurely lose patience with regard to these issues.

As the Head of School, I spend a lot of my time engaged in activities designed to “get at the truth of things.” The task is not as easy as it might seem! Stories of a classmate copying or cheating, a situation involving a he said/she said, claims that someone has taken a piece of personal property (think Pokemon cards), I have found myself wondering on occasion whether I might not have unknowingly signed on for the job of detective rather than school leader. During these times, I remind myself about the important role that truth-telling plays in the life of a growing child and I recognize the need for care, attention and understanding.

Children lie for all kinds of reasons, with the central feature being a desire to control their environment. They are seeking to make sense of the world, and are trying to figure out what is and isn’t in their control. In the vast majority of cases, this experimentation is completely devoid of any nefarious intent. For example, when my younger son was around three years old, my husband and I thought we had outsmarted him by taking care of his every need so that when we put him down to bed there would be no reason to call us – we made sure he had a sippy cup of water on his nightstand, read the bedtime story three times, tucked him in with his favorite stuffed animals, played his favorite lullaby, etc. Elijah discovered that if he came to the top of the stairs and said, “Mom, Dad, I’m scared,” we would immediately come to his aid to provide the comfort needed. While these pleas started out sounding sincere (and likely were), in time he figured out that he needn’t bother with the effect and just began offering the statement without any inflection – a statement as flat as “The sky is blue.” No one wants to second-guess their child’s fear, however, so up we went. So ask yourself, was Eli lying? I think not. I rather think he was using his intelligence and reasoning skills to get what he wanted/needed.

According to child psychologists, there are many perfectly acceptable – even noble – reasons a child might lie. He might be trying to protect his parents, who he knows would not be able to handle his “imperfection” or mistake. She might not be able to complete a homework assignment on her own, and may have been seeking to get the help she needed by looking at a friend’s homework. How often do we ask to see a colleague’s work to get a better understanding or direction? When a child is discovered doing this, however, it’s called “cheating,” and we all too often jump to the conclusion that was is at stake is an issue related to personal character and integrity.

Lying follows a predictable developmental pattern in children:
Preschool age children make up stories not always to deceive, but sometimes to avoid punishment. They also imitate white lies or fibs, learning from their parents and those in their social world. According to Dr. Michael Lewis of Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, 65% of children learn to lie by age two and a half. Lewis further contends that a higher IQ in children is correlated with lying.

By the time children are five or six years old, they have learned the difference between lying and telling the truth. Like their polite parents, they too have become skilled at telling white lies to protect the feelings of others, and also have learned such skills as lying to enhance their position, and to avoid punishment. They experiment with lying in a variety of forms and contexts.

By age seven, children have full understanding of the difference between a truth and a lie, and can understand the concept of manipulating information to influence another person’s thinking. They can be quite sophisticated and convincing in their lies, and can sustain their deception even when challenged.

In adolescence, children may lie to their parents as they cement their own sense of individuality, particularly if it has to do with loyalty to their peers, which overshadows loyalty to their parents at this stage. A desire for independence and personal power may lead to lying, as will the desire to cover up mistakes or misbehaviors – common occurrences in the lives of tweens and teens.

Catching our children in a lie can strike fear or dread in the heart of a parent. We do everything we can to raise our children as moral beings who hold honesty as a true virtue, but as parents we sometimes forget that the road to honesty and integrity is a long one, filled with many missteps and confusing experiences. These experiences teach us the importance of being honest, as well as help us find strategies for discerning truth and for taking responsibility for our actions. As adults, we need to know when our child’s lying falls within normal bounds and when intervention may be needed, being sure to guide our children through these stages of life and helping to shape them into people of integrity and sound character. To read more about this important topic, check out the links below.

Stages and strategies for developing truthfulness:

Lots of tips for dealing with lying at different ages and stages

Questions? Thoughts? Ideas? I’d love to hear them! Email me: jsingleton@allsaintshoboken.com.