As a parent, you’ve probably experienced a moment when you realize your child has, well… stretched the truth a bit. Indeed, very young kids are capable of telling lies, says research in the journal Developmental Psychology. The twist? Rather than being a cause for concern, little kids who tell tall tales may actually be showing signs of advanced cognitive skills.
In the study, researchers played a guessing game with young children. They hid a toy behind the child’s back and asked him to guess what it was based on the sound it made (hear a quack, answer “duck!”). After two turns, the experimenter announced that she had to leave the room and asked the child not to look around to see the final toy while she was gone.
Not surprisingly, most immediately snuck a peek. Then, the experimenter came back and asked if the child had turned to look. Twenty-five percent of two-year-olds lied and said they had not; that number grew to 50 percent for the three-year-old group and roughly 80 percent for kids four years and older. In other words, as kids grew, so did their tendency to cover up the truth.
— Mary Lauren Weimer
— Danielle Elwood
— Selena Burgess
But lying wasn’t necessarily seen as a sign of a devious character — it was actually connected to greater cognitive powers. Researchers tested the kids on measures of executive function (skills such as the ability to focus, plan, and self-regulate) and found that the kids who lied tended to score higher on these tests. In an interview, psychologist and lead researcher Angela Evans said that the results suggest those toddlers who lie might be exhibiting advanced thinking capabilities.
This makes sense; lying is a complicated feat, requiring one to understand rules (even while you break them), know what the other person wants to hear, and in some cases, craft an elaborate response to cover up. In the study, that last skill didn’t surface until kids were older. Even though many two-year-olds had the ability to lie initially, their lies fell apart very quickly under questioning (for example, they blurted out what the toy was after saying they hadn’t looked at it), whereas four-year-olds were often able to go many rounds of questioning without giving themselves away.
If lying at such a young age worries you, rest assured that toddler fibs seem to signal on-track thinking, not questionable morals. A two-year-old, or even a three-year-old, doesn’t typically lie to be malicious. At this age, they’re testing how communication works and grasping the correct times to share information and when to bend the truth. With older kids, lying creates an opportunity for discussion. Rather than reprimanding when your child lies, it’s a good chance to say that being truthful is important, and that having open conversations helps people understand each other. Researchers in this study point out that lying isn’t a black-and-white issue, either. As a parent, you can’t say that it’s never okay to lie, but then ask your child to put on a smile and say “thank you, I love it” when grandma gives him an undesired gift. A certain amount of truth massaging is an adaptive social skill. In fact, Evans said that previous research has shown children with developmental delays such as autism tend not to be as sophisticated at lying.
In our house, lies seem to be innocuous and random. My four-year-old might say he has a tummy ache when he really just wants an extra bedtime tuck, or that he had music when his daily log at school says drawing. He also blurts out statements that are obviously inaccurate (“I was out on the yard today all alone. I was playing tag with two friends!”). Mostly these things seem like preschool brain jumbles — not exactly cunning deceit.
“Lying is a natural process for kids this age,” says Evans. It would only be a cause for concern if it were getting in the way of friendships or damaging trust with a parent. Still, talking about truth is important, and she says her group has found certain ways to promote it: by talking about the importance of being truthful, praising your child when they are honest, and not getting angry if they do something they shouldn’t and then tell you about it (if you get mad, your child is more likely to lie in the future).
Next time your toddler tries to pull one over on you, have a quick, non-judgmental talk about honesty. And then smile to yourself at his precocious talent.