If Your Young Child Lies, Will He Become a Pathological Liar?
When three-year-old Kelsey’s mother asked her why there was juice on the floor, Kelsey said, “I don’t know.”
Four-year-old Murray was asked by his dad if he had been using the hammer and if he knew where it was. “I wasn’t using it,” Murray replied.
Jenny, age five, told her mother she didn’t know who broke the glass that was found in the trash container under the kitchen sink. “Did you break it?” her mother asked. “No,” Jenny said.
Each of these children told an untruth. But child psychologists who study the development of children say that all children are like Kelsey, Murray, and Jenny. That is, all children lie.
Does this mean that all children are liars or that they will turn into pathological liars?
Certainly not. In fact, developmental psychologists say that as children grow older their lying is often a cognitive signal that children understand what others are thinking.
However, kids first begin lying around age three. Their ability to deliberately tell a lie is a result of their increased language development and greater understanding of their parent’s rules, along with better understanding of the consequences for breaking those rules.
So, when Kelsey says she doesn’t know how the orange juice got spilled on the floor, she is lying in order to escape censure or punishment for spilling juice – an offense she knows will bring disapproval and possibly punishment. But at this age, Kelsey is not aware of the morality of the situation, except in a broad sense that she knows that both spilling juice and lying are both wrong. However, in her eyes, it might be better to avoid trouble and the lie is worth it.
It’s also during the later toddler stages that children enjoy exploring their newly discovered mental playground. That is, just as they get a kick out of exploring various spaces at home or the playground equipment at the park, they also enjoy using their mental abilities and the language that goes with those abilities.
For example, 30-month-old Nick when asked how old he is by his grandmother says he is three. Or, when this same grandmother asks him his dog’s name, he says “George” (even though he knows very well his dog is named Ike). It’s fun for children of this age to see what will happen when they change things or play around with words. These are lies, of course, but no one takes them seriously.
Parents and other caregivers are more likely to take a young child’s lies more seriously if they seem to be deliberate efforts to avoid accepting responsibility.
The lies and mistruths uttered by young children are complicated by their parents’ moral guidance. If you are a typical parent, you tell your child that lying is wrong and she should always tell the truth. However, when your child becomes four, they will catch you in lies.
For example, Murray heard his mother tell a friend that she loved the sweater the friend had given her as a gift. But moments before this, Murray heard his mother complain that the sweater was the wrong color for her and the sleeves didn’t hang right.
When Murray told his mother she lied, his mother said that she didn’t want to hurt her friend’s feelings. “It was a white lie,” his mother told him. “I told her I loved it because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.”
While this may be confusing to toddlers, by the time a child is four or four-and-a-half, he can see that there are “good lies,” the so-called little white lies, and bad lies, lies that are just meant to deceive and are not related to saving anyone else’s feelings.
If you can keep the developmental aspect of lying in perspective, you are less likely to be alarmed when your child lies. Few children will grow up to be pathological liars. However, if your child is lying too often after age four and their lies are to avoid punishment, then you should make sure that your expectations for their behavior are not too exacting or that your punishment for misbehaviors is not too punitive or harsh.