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The Truth About Lies

05/22/2014 06:17 pm ET | Updated Jul 22, 2014
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I remember this story I read as a child:

A little boy, James comes home to his mother everyday and narrates the escapades of his classmate Charlie. Charlie does the most unimaginable of things: goes out for a stroll in the garden in the middle of a class, plays in a fountain of water at school, punches big, bad boys. Of course, he never does homework.

One day, James' mom goes to meet the teachers and exclaims, "It sure must be quite a task to handle Charlie. Have you talked to his parents about him yet?"

The teacher looks surprised and says, "We do not have a Charlie in our class."

It's the mom's turn to be surprised. Turns out that James created a character to do all the things he himself wanted to.

This was just a faraway story I had read sometime till our daughter entered a phase where she could form a thing purely in her mind and articulate it to us. She would come back from school with a new pencil and say an angel gave it to her. When my parents had their new home painted, she looked at the murals on the roof and said, "I made those!"

In more common parlance, she had started lying; she was 4.

I was starting to freak out when both my mother and my mother-in-law played out their wisdom and said, "It is simply a part of growing up. "

In a study by developmental psychologist Kang Lee at the University of Toronto, lying marks an important cognitive developmental milestone and begins to develop around the age of 3. This is when a child is able to see beyond what is in front of her eyes and dig into the recesses of the mind to reconstruct and reproduce it later.

A classic study (first conducted in 1989 and replicated by Dr. Kang Lee and in 2002 ) where the children were prohibited from peeking into a toy unravels some of the mysteries of children lying. About 36 percent of 3-year-old children lied about the peeking and majority of kids between 4 and 7 lied about it.

A more interesting finding was that the 3-year-olds were not successful in hiding their lies and they described the toy when asked to do so. This could explain why we hear so many "characters" playing out in their narrations. The older kids who lied were able to stick to their lies and feigned ignorance about the appearance of the toy. The study also supports that cultural factors are also important factors in helping the child understand what is really acceptable to say. For example, children would be prodded to say they like a gift even they do not- only to appear polite.

In the book Advances in Child Development and Behavior, Volume 40, Dr. Angela Crossman and Dr. Victoria Talwar explain that children with higher IQs are likely to lie more. These children are also more likely to have good social skills as adolescents.

It is only natural that parents will find it hard to take that our children do not speak the truth entirely. However, it is indisputable there are hardly any adults you will find that do not lie. In fact, Social Psychologist Dan Ariely's book, "The Honest Truth about Dishonesty" talks about all the quirky reasons and ways we lie to others and to ourselves. Lie detection is a complete and fascinating field of study by itself.

While it is important to understand that lying is not only common, but inevitable, there are a few things that will fundamentally veer the child towards preferring to speak the truth. It is also common sense to admit that the reasons a child will lie are not very different from the reasons an adult will lie.

1. Children lie because they fear the consequences of speaking the truth. Younger children lie because they fear physical punishment. Older children lie due to fear of punishment AND the fear of being misunderstood and trivialized. Moderation is really the word here.

2. Children are confused when they realize that what they hear from their parents and what they see them doing are two different things. Sample this:

Scenario 1:
The dad receives a phone call. He looks at the phone and realizes that it is someone he cannot talk to. He gestures to his wife to respond saying he is not at home.

Scenario 2:
The mom asks the dad, "Did you find the stuff I asked you for?" He realizes he has forgotten about it, but says, "I looked but it was out of stock."

Scenario 3:
Dysfunctional families can take their toll on kids in more ways than we can imagine. The mom does something the dad doesn't approve of simply because their beliefs don't match. She doesn't want to go through the rigmarole of the trying to convince him one more time. Not again after that scene the last time! She does what she wants anyway and then tells the kids, "If your dad happens to ask, say this!"

This could be replayed in innumerable situations even between extended families with the children being an audience to all of it. Even worse, being forced to be a part of it!

3. Children lie when they realize that their priorities do not match with that of the parents. For example, a teenager's top priority is to fit into the peer mold which could be emotionally draining. But when parents fail to accommodate that in a non-combative manner, the child will simply choose to take the easier route and lie about it. The mantra is: Don't sweat the small stuff. Let them be.

4. Lastly, if you do catch the child lying, let go of the urge to overreact. Instead, reinforce that you understand the reasons behind the lying. A few words of love and understanding have the power the transform anybody.

Who can argue that it won't be so for your own child?

Visit the author's blog at www.kidskintha.com