“Not my son!” your patient’s parent rants. “If he lies to me, he will regret it for a long time.” While your first reaction may be to agree that a child lying to a parent crosses a kind of moral line in the sand, lying is a far more nuanced part of parenting worth a deeper understanding.
In order to lie, a child has to develop cognitive and social understanding. Typically developing children look to see what is interesting to others, called “joint attention,” at around 12-18 months. Failure to do this is one of the early signs of autism reflecting atypical social understanding. At around 3.5 years, children may attempt to deceive if they have broken a rule. The study demonstrating this may sound a lot like home: Children are left alone with a tempting toy but told not to touch it. Although they do touch it while the adult is out of sight, they say rather sweetly (and eventually convincingly) that they did not, even though the toy was clearly moved! While boys generally have more behavior problems, girls and children with better verbal skills achieve deceit at an earlier age, some as young as 2 years. At this stage, children become aware that the adult can’t know exactly what they know. If the parent shows high emotion to what they consider a lie, this can be a topic for testing! Children with ADHD often lack the inhibition needed for early mastery of deception, and children with autism later or not at all. They don’t see the social point to lying nor can they fake a facial expression. They have a case of intractable honesty!
The inability to refrain from telling the truth can result in social rejection, for example when a child rats on a peer for a trivial misdeed in class. Even though he is speaking the truth and “following the (teacher’s) rules,” he did not see that the cost of breaking the (peer) social rules was more important. By age 6 years, children typically figure out that what another person thinks may not be true – their belief may be incorrect or a “false belief.” This understanding is called Theory of Mind, missing or delayed in autism. Only 40% of high-functioning children with autism passed false belief testing at ages 6- to 13-years-old, compared with 95% of typical age-matched peers (). The percentage of children on the spectrum understanding false beliefs more closely matched that of preschoolers (39%). At a later age and given extra time to think, some children with autism can do better at this kind of perspective taking, but many continue having difficulty understanding thoughts of others, especially social expectations or motivations (such as flirting, status seeking, and making an excuse) even as adults. This can impair social relationships even when desire to fit in and IQ are otherwise high.
On the other hand, ADHD is a common condition in which “lying” comes from saying the first thing that comes to mind even if the child knows otherwise. A wise parent of one of my patients with ADHD told me about her “30 second rule” where she would give her child that extra time and walk away briefly to “be sure that is what you wanted to say,” with praise rather than give a consequence for changing the story to the truth. This is an important concept we pediatricians need to know: Punishing lying in children tends to result in more, not less, lying and more sneakiness. Instead, parents need to be advised to recall the origins of the word discipline as being “to teach.”
When children lie there are four basic scenarios: They may not know the rules, they may know but have something they want more, they may be impulsive, or they may have developed an attitude of seeking to con the adults whom they feel are mean as a way to have some power in the relationship and get back at them. Clearly, we do not want to push children to this fourth resort by harsh reactions to lying. We have seen particular difficulty with harsh reactions to lying in parents from strong, rule-oriented careers such as police officers, military, and ministers. Asking “How would your parent have handled this?” often will reveal reasons for their tough but backfiring stance.
Lying can work to get what one wants and nearly all children try it.As with other new milestones, children practice this “skill,” much to parents’ dismay. Parents generally can tell if children are lying; they see it on their faces, hear the story from siblings, or see evidence of what happened. Lying provides an important opportunity for the adult to stop, take some breaths, touch the child, and empathize: “It is hard to admit a mistake. I know you did not mean to do it. But you are young, and I know that you are good and honest inside, and will get stronger and braver at telling the truth as you get older. Will you promise to try harder?” In some cases a consequence may be appropriate, for example if something was broken. Usually, simply empathizing and focusing on the expectation for improvement will increase the child’s desire to please the parents rather than get back at them. Actual rewards for honesty improve truth telling by 1.5 times if the reward is big enough.
But it is important to recognize that we all make split second tactical decisions about our actions based on how safe we feel in the situation and our knowledge of social rules and costs. Children over time need to learn that it is safe to tell the truth among family members and that they will not be harshly dealt with. It is a subtle task, but important to learn that deception is a tool that can be important used judiciously when required socially (I have a curfew) or in dangerous situations (I did not see the thug), but can undermine relationships and should not be used with your allies (family and friends).
But parenting involves lying also, which can be a model for the child. Sarcasm is a peculiar form of problematic adult lying. The adults say the opposite or an exaggeration of what they really mean, usually with a smirk or other nonverbal cue to their intent. This is confusing, if not infuriating, to immature children or those who do not understand this twisted communication. It is best to avoid sarcasm with children, or at least be sure to explain it so the children gain understanding over time.
Parents need to “lie” to their children to some extent to reassure and allow for development of confidence. What adult hasn’t said “It’s going to be all right” about a looming storm, car crash, or illness, when actually there is uncertainty. Children count on adults to keep them safe emotionally and physically from things they can’t yet handle. To move forward developmentally, children need adults to be brave leaders, even when the adults don’t feel confident. Some parents think their children must know the “truth” in every instance. Those children are often painfully anxious and overwhelmed.
There is plenty of time for more facts later when the child has the thinking and emotional power to handle the truth.
Dr. Howard is assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and creator of CHADIS (www.CHADIS.com). She had no other relevant disclosures. Dr. Howard’s contribution to this publication was as a paid expert to MDedge News. E-mail her at .