This week my son was getting ready for school, a process that is never quick. He came trundling down the stairs, schoolbag in hand, and went to open the door. I quickly asked him, “Did you remember to brush your teeth?”
He looked me straight in the eye and replied, “Yes.”
I was about to let him go when my husband called down the stairs, “Wow. He’s lying. His toothbrush is still dry.”
I looked at my 9-year-old and asked, “Did you just lie to me?”
He sighed and nodded and then made some excuse of being in a hurry. I explained that we always have time to brush our teeth no matter what. He then stomped back up the stairs to do as he was told. For a moment I reeled, because I couldn’t remember a time where he told me a bald lie before without somehow giving himself away.
Later I chatted with my husband about the fact that our son has started to lie — not often, but on occasion — which is a new thing for us. Finn is usually as honest as the day, but the older he has gotten, the more versed he’s become in lying. This troubles me, yet when I read this new study, I should have taken some comfort. Because apparently kids who are better liars also have better memories!
For the study, 114 kids ages 6 and 7 were told they were going to play a trivia game, answering three questions, and if they got all three right, they’d win a prize.
The first two were easy:
What noise does a dog make?
What color are bananas?
The third, however, was pretty much unanswerable without taking a wild guess, as the subject matter was made up:
What is the name of the boy in the cartoon Spaceboy?
All of the questions were written on note cards, with four possible answers on the front. The correct answer, plus a picture of a monkey, was written on the back. After the kid had answered the first two questions and was shown the answers on the backs of the cards, the experimenter asked the final question, and then left the room, leaving the final card on the table with the answer side face-down. The child was told not to peek, and there was a video camera hidden in a small cardboard box recording whether they did.
Did the temptation get the better of any of them?
Well, most didn’t peek – what good kids! Those that did (25%) gave themselves away by knowing the answer and of course saying what the picture was. Before the lying task, the kids had also been given tests to measure their verbal working memory. It turned out, the children with better verbal working memories were also better liars.
There is something in this, as my son can remember spellings in a flash! Meanwhile my 4-year-old daughter, who could lie her way out of anything, is like a mini elephant — she forgets NOTHING.
So should we worry about our kids lying?
According to a 1989 survey, most kids begin lying at the age of 2, which if you think about the “I didn’t start the fight — HE took MY toy” fights that kids have from an early age, isn’t so surprising. My kids have snuck into the cookie jar, lied about losing items at school, and once picked up farm eggs from a gift store and threw them at each other and then denied it — even when one had egg dripping down his cheek!
Most of the time they’re harmless little lies, but how do we make sure they don’t become such skilled liars that in the teen years, we have no idea what they’re up to?
My parents had the ethos with me that I started with 100% trust and if I did anything deceitful or lied to them, then the trust would go down and so would my freedom. I never lied, always believing that the truth would be found out anyway. OK, so maybe I told a few little lies about smoking, but I was honest about where I went and with whom. I knew deep down it was just to protect me and to make sure I was safe. I knew that lying only ever made things a million times worse.
There’s also a case for knowing how to lie well (aka telling little white lies) so that we don’t offend people or hurt their feelings. A 2014 Canadian study explained that being able to lie convincingly was a skill all children needed to grasp if they were to understand that other people have their own beliefs and thoughts that are not the same as theirs. It found that lying well is in fact an important social skill that all children should master.
So there is good lying — white lies – and bad lying. How can we get kids to tell the difference? The research suggests that if you want a child to confess to a wrongdoing, you should reassure them that they won’t be in trouble for confessing and that telling the truth would make you happy. The study found you have a 60% chance that your child will be honest, but 40% are likely to lie anyway.
At least if my son is in that 40%, I can take comfort that it means he probably has a better memory than most. Silver linings and all that …More On