The lies our children tell…

Do humans lie?

Before you do anything else, I would like you to try to answer the following questions?

  1. Do you think your child (or a child which you are acquainted with) lies?
  2. Do you think you can tell when your child lies?
  3. Do you think other children your child’s age lie?
  4. Is lying a terrible thing?
  5. If they do lie, why do you think children choose to lie?

Did you try to truthfully answer questions 1 to 5?


Are you lying about answering question 1 to 5?

Most probably a great deal of people reading this have lied about answering questions 1 to 5 above. My supposition is based on a 2010 study that postulates that adults lie at least once a day, every day. The average number of lies people tell every day is around 1.65 (Serota, Levine, & Boste, 2010). However, it should be noted that in this study only 40.1% of the sample reported telling a lie in the past 24 hours. Thus, the 1.65 lies per day statistic should be taken with a pinch of salt, as people probably lie more than that.

Evolutionary psychology theory proposes that the “birth” of lying and lying behaviors coincide with the “birth” of language. Lying is seen as a tool, particularly in ancient times where the competition for resources or mates depended on one’s physical strength. Lying seems to have given people an advantage over others who only used “physical force” to obtain resources. Lying “offered” them the possibility to manipulate others without the use of such force, and in this way enabled them to gain power or resources without risking their physical wellbeing.

In contemporary times, lying behaviour still endures. To many, this comes as no surprise. However, as humans and their behaviours have evolved, so have their lies. The “why we lie?” question has been researched somewhat. An interesting research publish in 2016 by Levine, Vaqas Ali, Dean, & Abdulla examined reported accounts of deception with the intention of developing a list of motives that are common across cultures. Outcomes of this study indicate that people lie for a variety of reasons which include: covering a transgression; seeking selfish advantage; avoiding others; seeking to protect others; social politeness; making positive impressions; being malicious; and being funny.

Why do children lie?

Young children lie for similar reasons adults lie.

Pre-schoolers seem to evidence a focus on the here-and now, and thus tend to underscore their own immediate perspectives, especially their egoistic motives or desires (Flavell, Miller, & Miller, 2002). Young children may also legitimize the commands of authority figures such as parents or teachers by appeal to an imposing feature of size or power (Gibbs, 2014). According to American Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (Kohlberg, 1984) the preschool child’s egocentric predispositions tend to lead the child to perceive right and wrong by what they get punished for. Thus, pre-schoolers generally are motivated to lie to avoid punishment.

kid-lying-to-motherHowever, in the case of young children, another aspect could also be taken into consideration: i.e. emotional expectancy (Smith & Rizzo, 2016). This term refers to the emotions an individual expects to experience following a behaviour. An example of this would be the positive emotions young children would expect when they decide to push someone out of the way for them to get access to a coveted toy. In this case the child expects positive emotions, as they would be achieving a desired outcome. Yet, as they subsequently get reprimanded by their parents or teacher (the imposing authority figures mentioned previously), their emotional expectancy might be challenged.

As children start to experience the outcomes of “transgression” (e.g. pushing another child to get a toy), and the results of their transgressions (e.g. them obtaining the toy, or being punished for pushing), they start to become hyper-aware of the potential personal cost. As parents notice their children developing such awareness, they tend to start believing that increasing the threat of punishment could deter their children from doing wrong. However, this tends to be a misguided assumption. Young children’s highly egocentric nature tends to get the better of them. Rather than reducing their transgressions, they tend to up their “lying game”. In fact, studies find that children who live in constant threat of punishment don’t lie less. Instead, they become better are covering their tracks; they become better liars (Bronson & Merryman, 2009).

Younger children, it seems, also lie for other reasons other than to avoid punishment, or to decrease personal cost. Another reason could be to “make the parent happy” (Bronson & Merryman, 2009, p. 85). Children tend to strive to obtain a parent’s approval as well as their love. Thus, their lying behaviours could be motivated by their fear of losing approval.

Another reason children lie is because they see us (i.e. adults) lie (Talwar & Lee, 2008). In other words, children tend to learn that lying is accepted by adults, as it is practiced by adults on a regular basis. Ask yourselves, how is it ‘Ok’ to ask children to pretend to like presents that they don’t like, but then insist that they must be honest in other interactions. Social learning theory here is very relevant. This postulates that behaviour is learned from the environment through the process of observational learning.

Lying – a child’s developmental milestone?!

Children’s lying skills, or ability to maintain a lie, is dependent on their cognitive development (Flavell, Miller, & Miller, 2002). Numerous studies seem to indicate that “lie-telling behaviours” emerge as early as in the preschool years and that young children are able to deceive others relatively early in life (Talwar & Lee, 2008).

How do researchers conduct such studies and how do they come up with such conclusions?

One of the most frequently used tests or experiments used in the study of children’s lying behaviours is the peeking game or peeking experiment. In this experiment, they ask children to guess the identity of toys hidden from their site, based on an audio clue. For the first few toys, the clue is obvious (e.g. a bark for a dog, a moo, for a cow, etc.). In these cases, children tend to easily identify the toy. Suddenly, the sound played has nothing to do with the toy presented. E.g. the sound played is that of Beethoven’s Fur Elise, but the toy is a rubber ball. This makes it impossible for the child to guess the toy without seeing it. At this point the experimenter leaves the room on the pretext of having to use the bathroom. Before leaving the room, the experimenter asks the child to not peek at the toy. Upon returning, the experimenter asks the child for the answer, following up with the question: “Did you peek at the toy whilst I was not here?”.

Very few children refrain from peeking. It is reported that when such a game was carried out with three-year-old children from Canada, one third of these children peeked. When asked if they peeked or not, over 30% of three-year-old children claimed that they did not peek (i.e. they lied).

Age seems to make a difference in lying behaviours. As children grow older, lying behaviours tend to increase. In fact, 80% of four-year-olds that took part in Talwar & Lee’s (2008) experiment peeked. Over 80% of the four-year-old that peeked also lied about it. From around 4 years of age, most children start to experiment with lying. Talwar & Lee’s study (2008) also indicates that even when children were asked to promise to tell the truth, that made very little difference amongst the four-year-olds in the study. On the other hand, it made a significant difference amongst the three-year-olds, who immediately “spilled the beans” when asked if they were telling the truth. They concluded that the tendency to lie about one’s own transgressions remains strong throughout preschool and elementary school years. However, asking young children below three years of age to promise to tell the truth can reduce their tendency to lie.

Whilst lying behaviours in children are generally perceived as being a negative personality trait, many developmental psychologists are re-evaluating the science behind this apparent “loss of innocence”. They postulate that the emergence of lying is indicative of an advance in cognitive functioning in children. The limited existing research appears to suggest that children’s theory-of-mind, executive functioning, and their conceptual and moral understanding of lies may be related to their lie-telling abilities (Talwar & Lee, 2008). In fact, if one had to analyse the cognitive factors that influence lying, it becomes apparent that lying is the more advanced skill, rather than truthfulness:

          “A child who is going to lie must recognize the truth, intellectually conceive of an alternate reality, and be able to convincingly sell that new reality to someone else. Therefore, lying demands both advanced cognitive development and social skills that honesty simply doesn’t require”

(Bronson & Merryman, 2009, p. 82).

Talwar & Lee (2008) postulate that as children grow older, they become more skilled at maintaining their lies in subsequent verbal statements after they have told an initial lie. The science behind this conclusion is that as the child’s ability to understand and take another person’s perspective (Theory of Mind) increase, so does the ability to lie. Furthermore, as executive functions also improve (i.e. the cognitive process that encompasses an individual’s ability to organize thoughts and activities, prioritize tasks, manage time efficiently, and make decisions), the ability to lie in turn increases. Research also indicates that working memory may also play a role in children’s decision to lie. Telling a lie may require the dual ability to remember the rule being violated and inhibit reporting of the transgression that they wish to conceal (Talwar & Lee, 2008).




Do you think you can tell when your child lies?

Tawlar, Lee & Bala (2006) state that most parents believe that they can tell when their children lie. Most adults, including teachers, feel the same way. However, this seems to be a myth (Talwar, Lee, & Bala, 2006). In fact, people who are not trained in the art and science of identifying deception generally have a 50-50 chance of identifying a lie. Adults who know the child closely have a slightly higher chance of identifying that child’s lie. Talwar, Lee & Bala (2006) conclude that the realisation that the adults are not as efficient as they thought they were at telling when their child is lying is a painful pill to swallow!


Before concluding that all children are liars, and that they are responsible for all the evil we know about today, think again.

Children explore and experiment. Some of these explorations and experiments are also related to lying behaviours. Just as adults do (and sometimes do not admit), they learn how to lie. Why? Because lying can help anyone cope with a tricky or difficult situation:

How can you explain to your spouses that they do not look good in their new pair of skinny jeans? How can you explain to your friend that their new haircut is not at all flattering? How can you conceal your disappointment when you receive an iPod for your birthday, when you really wanted a diamond ring? The answer is: by lying!!

Lying is part and parcel of our everyday lives. How can children be coached on telling the truth if they “catch” adults lying daily? One might argue that white lies are exactly that…white innocent lies. These do no harm. Thus, these could be justified? Well, you might be right…or wrong. We might define those “justifiable” lies as pro-social lies. These are lies that are used whilst seeking to protect others, whilst endeavouring to be socially polite, and whilst striving to make positive impressions. Think of these reasons when you think that your children are lying to you. As mentioned earlier, they could also be trying to avoid being punished.

Older children at times lie to avoid others from getting punished. In fact, it is a known fact that “tattletales” are not held in high regard by their peers. Other times children lie whilst striving to win your approval, or when they are endeavoring to not lose your love or your trust.

So, what should we do about all this information?

Some would recommend leading by example. Others would encourage parents to tackle lying as early as possible, and talk about the issue of lying (its pros and cons) from as early as a child can understand the concept.

Bronson & Merryman (2009, p. 86) recommend that parents become more conscious of lying behaviours and keep in mind the reasons why children usually lie: i.e. to make the parents happy (i.e. by not disappointing them) and to avoid punishment. They recommend using the following approach:

“I will not be upset with you if you broke the toy. And…if you tell the truth, I will be really happy”.

This, according to them, is an offer of both immunity and a clear route back to good standing with your good selves.

Finally, maybe it would be useful to think of lying as an indicator of increased cognitive capacity. Such “milestone” could provide opportunities for adults to proactively discuss moral dilemas, perspective taking, empathy, and other ethical concerns with their developing children.

My recommendation on this topic is: to NOT avoid talking about lying. Not talking about lying, and lying related behaviours, could actually be a missed learning opportunity and a missed opportunity for emotional development.


Bronson, P., & Merryman, A. (2009). Nurture Shock: New thinking about children. Boston: Twelve.

Flavell, J. H., Miller, P. H., & Miller, S. A. (2002). Cognitive Development. NJ: Prentice Hall.

Gibbs, J. C. (2014). Moral Development & Reality. London: Oxford University press.

Kohlberg, L. (1984). Essays on moral development: vol 2. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Levine, T. R., Vaqas Ali, M., Dean, M., & Abdulla, R. A. (2016). Toward a Pan-cultural Typology of Deception. Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, 45(1), 1-12.

Serota, K., Levine, T., & Boste, F. (2010). The Prevalence of Lying in America: Three Studies of Self-Reported Lies. Human Communication Research, 36, 2-25.

Smith, C. E., & Rizzo, M. T. (2016). Children’s Confessions and lying related emotion expectancies. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 156(2017), 113-128.

Talwar, V., & Lee, K. (2008). Social and Cognitive Correlated of Children’s Lying Behaviour. Child Development, 866-881.

Talwar, V., & Lee, K. (2008). Social and Cognitive Correlates of Children’s Lying Behavior. Child Development, 866-881.

Talwar, V., Lee, K., & Bala, N. a. (2006). Adults’ Judgments of Children’s Coached Reports. Law and Human Behaviour, 30(5), 561-570.


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