This fantastic piece in New York Magazine explores studies analyzing the lies that children tell, the reasons behind them and the frequency with which they are offered. The results are interesting, but the reasons behind the lies are fascinating.
It starts very young. Indeed, bright kids—those who do better on other academic indicators—are able to start lying at 2 or 3. “Lying is related to intelligence,” explains Dr. Victoria Talwar, an assistant professor at Montreal’s McGill University and a leading expert on children’s lying behavior.
By their 4th birthday, almost all kids will start experimenting with lying in order to avoid punishment. Because of that, they lie indiscriminately—whenever punishment seems to be a possibility. A 3-year-old will say, “I didn’t hit my sister,” even if a parent witnessed the child’s hitting her sibling.
So why do kids lie and do so unabashedly?
By the time a child reaches school age, the reasons for lying become more complex. Avoiding punishment is still a primary catalyst for lying, but lying also becomes a way to increase a child’s power and sense of control—by manipulating friends with teasing, by bragging to assert status, and by learning he can fool his parents.
Thrown into elementary school, many kids begin lying to their peers as a coping mechanism, as a way to vent frustration or get attention. Any sudden spate of lying, or dramatic increase in lying, is a danger sign: Something has changed in that child’s life, in a way that troubles him. “Lying is a symptom—often of a bigger problem behavior,” explains Talwar. “It’s a strategy to keep themselves afloat.”
This resembles a typical defense in which the victim/accuser is a child. Defense attorneys will seek to discover a motive; strife in the child’s life might give a clue as to whether the child is fabricating an injury. But for the most part, this investigation has been based on anecdotal evidence and just plain common sense. Find a motive, unravel the lie.
Given, however, the increasing role of science in the courtroom, I wonder if studies such as this have a place in any defense. Surely a study such as this to back up the defense’s claim that a child is lying would seek to legitimize what might otherwise be viewed by the jury as a vile effort to push blame onto a small child, who we view as pure and honest.
[One] experiment was not just a test to see if children cheat and lie under temptation. It was also designed to test a child’s ability to extend a lie, offering plausible explanations and avoiding what the scientists call “leakage”—inconsistencies that reveal the lie for what it is. [The child]’s whiffs at covering up his lie would be scored later by coders who watched the videotape. So [the tester] accepted without question the fact that soccer balls play Beethoven when they’re kicked and gave [the child] his prize. He was thrilled.
Seventy-six percent of kids Nick’s age take the chance to peek during the game, and when asked if they peeked, 95 percent lie about it.
Either way, make sure you read the entire story. It’s a fantastic read.
Image by Solar Ikon. License info here.