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Rebecca Chicot PhD
Child development expert with a Phd from Cambridge University. She has worked on several best-selling books and BBC documentaries. She is the proud mother of three children.
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Stage 8 – before 5th birthday

Why does my child lie?

Lying is a universal stage in cognitive development, and it is a sign that your child is developing normally. Your child’s ability to lie will increase as his cognitive, social and emotion development increases, and his language acquisition increases. Encourage truthfulness by discussions about the value of honest and avoiding draconian punishments.
In Short
Your child will probably begin to emit his first fibs soon after his second birthday.

Lying relies on a particularly human ability called ‘Theory of Mind’. Having Theory of Mind means that a person is able to put themselves in the mind and perspective of another person.

The development of fibbing, lying and hiding

Let’s be honest, the vast majority of adults lie on a daily or weekly basis. These may be ‘white lies’, a slight massaging of the truth or lies that get us out of trouble or to get an outcome we want. Lying is not something adults are proud of, or something we want to have to contend with in our children, which is why we get very judgemental and upset when our children lie.

However, lying is a universal stage in development, and it is a sign that your child is developing cognitively. This means that a child that lies understands that the recipient of the lie has less knowledge or different knowledge about the facts than they do. This is a huge step and something that separates us from most animals mentally. An animal tricking another animal is incredibly rare and when it does happen it can be more likely that an animal has, for example, hidden food and then when the other animal happens not to find it they get a reward or positive reinforcement for that random behaviour. Lying is different – lying requires thinking about another person’s point of view and deliberately misdirecting them.

Your child will probably begin to attempt his first untruths soon after his second birthday. With his limited vocabulary and theory of mind and mental concepts, the first lies are usually simple denials. So when asked outright if he has done something ‘wrong’, he will begin to say ‘no’. He understands that certain behaviours are frowned upon and associated with parental disapproval. However, the subterfuge is very limited – as soon as you ask follow-up questions he will be unable to maintain his story.

By the time your toddler is three, his social and emotional development has led to an increase in noticing ‘polite’ behaviour and an increased (though limited) empathy with others. He might be able to tell a white lie, especially if he is coached to, for example, ‘If Aunt Kate comes here please say you like her new hair colour as she’s a bit upset about it.’ Your toddler will be the weak link in the chain but he may also be able to briefly withhold exciting surprise information, e.g., that his Mother’s Day card to you is hidden in his bedroom, until the morning…but it will be tough.

Your toddler’s lying skills will increase as his cognitive, social and emotional development increases, and his language acquisition develops.

Lying and Theory of Mind

Lying relies on a particularly human ability called ‘Theory of Mind’. Having Theory of Mind means that a person is able to put themselves in the mind and perspective of another person. It’s very easy to see that your toddler struggles with this concept when you play hide and seek. There are whole Tumblr accounts devoted to hilarious hide and seek toddler fails:

  • Toddlers lying face down on the ground in the middle of a room.
  • Toddlers standing behind the curtains with their legs sticking out at the bottom.
  • Toddlers putting their head behind a cushion.

All of these young children think that because they can’t see the seeker, they can’t be seen. They have no concept or ability to imagine what the seeker can see. It is only that we find this mental gymnastics so effortless that we find toddler hide and seek so funny and ridiculous.

The development of mind reading skills

Theory of mind starts to develop at around 3.5 years, generally earlier in girls than boys and never in many children with severe autism. From this age children begin to realise that other people have their own knowledge about the world – although they develop and understanding that other people have different preferences to them from as early as 18 months. For a full description of the research findings watch Alice Gopnik’s wonderful TED talk on how babies think.

Using ‘Theory of Mind’ is effortless for adults but it’s an incredibly sophisticated mental ability as you need to be able to ‘get inside’ another person’s head and see their point of view….and then exploit it to your own benefit. It is only when this conceptual ability matures that Machiavellian manipulation can occur. As children become more able to think about what other people think and feel, they learn when it’s appropriate to lie and how to lie convincingly, but it’s a slow process.

Encouraging your toddler to be truthful

Although lying is a sign of huge leaps in your child’s cognitive and emotional development we all want to encourage our children to be truthful and honest.

You can encourage a culture of honesty in your household by having a warm and sensitive attitude. Draconian punishments, such as the naughty step and smacking for accidents like spilling drinks and hurting siblings arguably lead to strategies of denial and secrecy.

Parents who discipline their child by discussing the consequences of their actions produce children who have better moral development, compared to children whose parents use authoritarian methods and punishment.
Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, University of Cambridge.

If you are fair but firm and always praise your child for telling the truth they will reward you with more honesty. This means that witch-hunts to find culprits evaporate and your child is more accepting of your rules. It also means that he will more easily internalise your rules and boundaries as they are fair and come from a warm and loving parent.

Punishing lying doesn’t work

One study carried out by Cindy Arruda, Sarah Yachison and Victoria Talwar at McGill University in Canada perfectly illustrated the response of children to the punishment of lying and appeals for truthfulness. They developed a ‘temptation resistance test’ whereby a noisy toy was placed behind the child subject. They then said that the child was not allowed to peek. With the huge temptation around four-fifths of the children peeked.

The interesting results came with the children when they were asked if they peeked. If asked point blank 67.5% of children who peaked lied and said they didn’t peak. However, if the children were threatened with punishment if they did peek, this just increased the chances of lying.

Another group had appeals for honesty; one group was told by the researcher ‘I will feel happy if you tell the truth’ and the other ‘honesty’ group was told ‘Telling the truth is the right thing to do’. With or without the threat of punishment they found that without an appeal to tell the truth, more than 80% of the children lied.

Half of the children that were told that telling the truth would make the researcher happy, chose to then tell the truth regardless of whether they thought they would be punished or not. Saying that telling the truth was the moral thing to do reduced lying to 40% in the group that didn’t expect punishment (it remained twice as high in the group that did expect punishment). Indeed, Professor Talwar stated when asked about the implications of the experiment and how to deal with lying and fibbing,

What seems to increase honesty is giving children explicit messages about the value of honesty. If we wish to teach children to act in prosocial ways, we need to teach children about those behaviours and why they are important. We need to teach children about the value of being honest. When a child does something wrong a natural reaction is to punish their transgression. However, if they tell the truth about it, we can give them some recognition for it. ‘I’m not happy you broke my vase–and you can help me clean it up/fix it/use your pocket money to replace it–but I’m glad you told me the truth.’ If we recognise honesty that is a powerful way to encourage and teach children that honesty is valued
Professor Victoria Talwar, McGill University, Canada.

These results suggest that the best way to encourage honesty is by reassuring your child that they won’t be in trouble if they confess and also that it would make you happy if they told the truth. I can certainly say that this has encouraged my children to tell the truth so much so that they often volunteer the truth even when I haven’t asked. If you want to encourage honesty you need to explain to your toddler that you understand that accidents happen or that everyone gets angry sometimes and then in that moment of shared experience ask them to tell you what happened.

Ben is such a fibber and it does worry me a bit as he seems to do it to gain approval so if someone is talking about Superman, Ben will say he’s seen Superman or whatever to kind of show off. I think it’s slightly my fault as I didn’t want to criticise him when he was telling a tall tale so would be like ‘Wow, really!’ I’ve now started to try and say that he doesn’t need to exaggerate and that people won’t believe him if he tells fibs but I find it tricky as I don’t want to dampen his imagination completely. Now I get him to try writing imaginative stories instead.
Real mum story. Debbie mum to Ben 4 years.
Hide and Seek – a litmus test of cognitive development

This is just a simple test or observation to play hide and seek with your child – both with him hiding, then letting him hide something small from you. You may find that he is able to hide a small thing from you more easily than hiding himself. This is because he is able to see the item being hidden in the same way that you do, but he finds it difficult to hide himself as he simply can’t imagine how he looks when he is hiding. For example, he can’t imagine his feet might be sticking out from under the curtain….

References and further reading

Baron-Cohen, Leslie & Frith (1985). “Does the autistic child have a ‘theory of mind’ Cognition 21 (1): 37–46.

Repacholi & Gopnik (1997). “Early reasoning about desires: Evidence from 14- and 18-month-olds.” Developmental Psychology 3: 12–21. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.33.1.12

Talwar, Arruda & Yachison (2015) ‘The effects of punishment and appeals for honesty on children’s truth-telling behavior.’ Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 2015; 130: 209 DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2014.09.011

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This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Essential Parent has used all reasonable care in compiling the information from leading experts and institutions but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details click here.