Saturday, June 8, 2013
More on Those Lying Little Liars:Maturing and Learning Until They Lie Well
A while ago, at http://childmyths.blogspot.com/2013/05/when-children-lie-evade-misrepresentor.html, I pointed out that it takes a good deal of cognitive ability for a child to tell a convincing lie. Lying is a skill that develops through a combination of maturation and learning. It is a real part of typical development and does not indicate that the child is emotionally disturbed. Naturally, parents would like their children not to evade or attempt to deceive them-- but equally naturally, they would like the children to tell appropriate social lies (“Oh, Grandma, I love these purple socks with sky-blue pink polka dots-- nobody else has anything like them!”). Lying has a conventional aspect as well as a cognitive one.
When we think about lying, it’s all too easy to confuse the cognitive skills involved in an effective lie with the moral development that forbids lies under some (but certainly not all) circumstances. When people lie, they may or not be breaking moral codes. Understanding when lying is immoral and when it is not is a complicated matter and takes experience and maturation to master. If I go to a dinner party and tell the hostess I like the salad when I actually find it disgusting, few would say that lie was an immoral one; they would be more likely to say that it was at least rude, perhaps even unnecessarily cruel (and therefore perhaps immoral), if I confessed what I really thought. On the other hand, if a friend of mine is arrested for theft, and I state that she was with me at the time even though she wasn’t, my lie, although kind to my friend, would be both illegal and immoral because it could lead to the conviction of an innocent person and other bad outcomes. (This all just goes to show that the idea of “learning right from wrong” is an enormous over-simplification.)
So, lying, or choosing not to lie , is partly a matter of cognitive skills that help a child decide what’s likely to be believed and what will happen if he or she is or is not believed. But development of those skills happens in parallel with the learning of conventions about lying and truth-telling and with the development of moral decision-making.
In an article in Child Development Perspectives, Kang Lee of the University of Toronto recently discussed the developmental trajectory of lying in typically-developing children (Little liars: Development of verbal deception in children. 2013, Vol. 7, pp. 85-90). Among other things, Lee looked at existing evidence about children’s lies in two situations-- when they were caught after having done something wrong, and when they needed to back up a lie they had already told. Only about 30% of 2-year-olds lied to cover their transgression, but by age 6 more than 80% of children did so. When they had lied (in an experimental situation, where they had been told not to peek at a hidden toy), 2- and 3-year-olds often denied that they had peeked, but then blurted out “Barney!” (correctly) when asked what they thought the toy was. Older children got gradually better at covering up, but were initially clumsy; Lee reported that one 5-year-old said she didn’t look, but felt the toy, and it “felt purple” so she knew it was Barney.
Lee also described the nonverbal behavior of lying children, and noted that when they lie deliberately, they often mimic “truth-telling” behavior, by making direct eye contact in some situations, and by averting their eyes (as if trying to remember) in others. These are behaviors that are likely to be much influenced by culture and convention, and Lee’s discussion emphasized the role of cultural expectations in determining how children use “white” or “social” lies. Preschoolers disapprove somewhat of social lies, but when they reach adolescence, after years of instruction and modeling by adults, they see such lies as a positive contribution to social interactions.
It’s obvious that most children lie and that skill in lying is evidence of continuing cognitive development. Paradoxically, although we say that lying is wrong and don’t like to have children do it, we may also need to think of some aspects of lying as positive signs of moral development and empathy. When lying is excessive or appears unnecessary or even foolish to adults, we need to examine the social context, the child’s understanding and intentions, and the child’s expectations based on family and cultural rules. There’s no need to jump to the conclusion that childhood lying is a symptom of mental illness or of character flaws greater than those most human beings display.
An interesting question that has not received much exploration is this: at what age do children know that we are lying to them? Does the subject make a difference? When they discover that the story about Santa wasn’t true, and that the sick kitten did not go to live with its grandma, do they also come to suspect that other things we say are less than truthful? As is so often the case, it’s what we do rather than what we say that sets the standard.