The Case for Lying (Sort of)

Family Matters on 08.11.11
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My daughter was 18 months old when she told her first lie. It was a little startling since we had regarded our wide-eyed toddler as 25 pounds of pure inculpability. But a split second after pressing the alarm button on her Aunt Ally's car fob our daughter pointed her finger at her 8-month-old cousin and said, "Hutty did it!"

This is going to sound weird, but I was happy about this development. Not in an evil, ma-ha-ha-wa way, in which my greatest wish were for my child to be morally depraved in her quest for world dominance. Far from it. But in a way that made me realize that my kid was getting this thing we call language, in which lying is part of the human package. Huh, I thought: This kid's going to be just fine in this big, old world.

Recently Parentables contributor Sarah Fernandez wrote a great post about how parents are liar, liars with their pants on fire. She opens up the discussion about the slippery slope of truth and lying and the dodgy territory we enter when we try to instill in our children that lying is a universally bad thing, even though we're the first ones to perpetuate some whoppers of our own. (Sarah pulls out a couple of examples, like Santa Claus and Where Babies Come From.)

Thankfully my spouse and I have yet to enter this territory since our now-2 year old cares less about fibbing and more about weaving tales of dragons. But that's just because she hasn't hit the Pants on Fire Stage yet. According to the authors of "NutureShock," a 4 year old will tell an untruth on average about every two hours while a 6 year old will lay one down every 90 minutes. That's a lot of tall tales.

Are we inadvertently encouraging lying?
So what's a good-intentioned parent to do? Certainly teaching you child the difference between lying and telling the truth is important. And kids won't lie once they know the difference, right? Not so. According to a research gleaned in "NurtureShock," "the better a young child can distinguish a lie from the truth, the more likely she is to lie given the chance."

Which is not all bad since much of this is a sign that your child is hitting a developmental milestone. She can tap the more complex parts of her brain that assess risk and she's honing her social skills. After all most kids stretch the truth because they don't want to deal with the fallout from their transgressions -- seeing their parents upset, which usually leads to punishment of one stripe or another.

The rub is that if "lying has become a successful strategy for handling difficult social situations, she'll stick with it. About one-third of kids do -- and if they're still lying at seven, then it seems likely to continue. They're hooked."

It's as if we parents are unintentionally setting traps for kids when it comes to subterfuge. If every time I see my daughter do something that I don't approve of and I ask her if she did it, she's more likely to pick up the judgment in my voice and tell a whopper to avoid punishment, or just to get back into my good graces. But if I were to tell her what she's done isn't acceptable instead, then I'm not putting her in a position to lie. Ah, the Zen-like skills required of parents each time we open our mouths!

Can we teach our kids to lie less?
In "NutureShock" children in a research study were read two stories, "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," and "George Washington and the Cherry Tree." We all recall the premise of these books: the boy who cried wolf eroded his credibility with the townspeople through his persistent lying while George Washington fessed up to chopping down a cherry tree.

You would think that "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" was the more effective tale given the stakes: a sullied reputation, a town in danger. But, no, it's old George that resonates with children and actually reduced lying in the research group, while boy-wolf had no reduction and a slight uptick in fibbing.  

The reason the George fable works so well is that there is no punishment involved. At the end of the story George's father says, "George, I'm glad that you cut down that cherry tree after all. Hearing you tell the truth is better than if I had a thousand cherry trees." The emphasis is on telling the truth, not being punished for trying to cover up a misdeed.

Do these skinny jeans look good on me?
You would have to be a species of one in order not to lie. Because living in a society, living in a community and pairing up with a loved one requires that we tend to our relationships with the utmost care. Which means telling a few white lies to lighten the load every once in a while.

Speaking of. Guess how much adults deceive. The Science Channel's "The Truth about Liars" claims that one out of every four conversations that lasts more than 10 minutes will contain a falsity, with men and women lying in equal portions. The good news (or the bad news depending on your view) is that we have something called a "truth bias" -- we want to believe that what we're being told is true blue. We're not all that bad as a species.

I don't want my daughter to be a liar, I really don't. At least not in the sense that she uses it to manipulate someone in order to boost her ego, shirk responsibility or control someone. But I do want her to have the emotional IQ to be able to know when it's important to tell the truth and when telling the truth is cruel. The latter requires a lie.

More Topics on Parenting
The Truth About Lying: I'm a Liar and My Kid is Too
Why Your Child's First Lie is a Cause for Celebration
The Golden Rule of Parenting: Judge Not