Imagine you are six years old, playing quietly with your toys and minding your own business.  Suddenly, your parents tell you to put away your toys and put on your shoes.  They have just enrolled you in a “cool science experiment.”  Immediately you think of an array of colorful “potions” overflowing with foam in beakers and flasks, white lab coats, an erupting mini volcano, and maybe Bill Nye off to the side running the show.  After a short drive, you arrive at what your parents call the “research lab” and your dreams are quickly dashed.  There are no mini volcanos and Bill Nye is nowhere in sight.  Instead, you are whisked away from your parents into a tiny room.  Inside the room there is a lone desk with chairs on both sides, an unopened brown bag, and occupying one of the chairs is a graduate research assistant who reminds you of Screech from Saved by the Bell.  Screech warmly invites you to sit in the empty chair and enthusiastically declares, ‘let’s play a game!’

Your six-year-old self is suddenly intrigued.  What kind of game is this Screech guy trying to get me to play here?  Screech explains the rules, ‘I want you to turn your chair around and cover your eyes.  I am going to reach into this brown bag and pull out three separate toys, one by one.’

Screech continues, ‘each toy is going to make a sound.  Without turning your chair around or peeking, I want you to guess what the toy is.  Ready?’

‘Heck yes,’ you think to yourself as your excitement reaches a crescendo.  You turn your chair around and wrap both hands around your eyes, now blinded in darkness.  The first toy pulled from the bag makes the sound a siren.  Screech feigns a sense of surprise as you swiftly guess correctly.  The toy is a firetruck.  Screech then pulls out a second toy which makes the sound of a baby crying.  Perhaps a bit tougher, though you guess correctly once again: a baby doll.  ‘This is easy’ you say with a sense of youthful ignorance, not knowing what’s coming.  You hear the brown bag ruffling again as Screech reaches for the final toy.  This time, however, the toy emits the classical tune of Fur Elise by Beethoven.  All the sudden, you are stumped!  But before you even have the chance to guess, Screech abruptly excuses himself claiming he needs to grab something from the other room.  He promises he’ll be right back and warns you not to peek while he is gone.

What would the six-year-old version of yourself do?  The experiment just described was part of a study led by researcher Dr. Victoria Talwar, widely regarded as the leading expert on children and lying.  So, what was the final toy singing Beethoven?  It was a stuffed soccer ball, strategically chosen to be near impossible to guess correctly without cheating.  Dr. Talwar wanted to see how many six-year-olds would peek while alone in the room, and perhaps more importantly, how many of them would lie when asked if they peeked.  Armed with hidden cameras throughout the tiny room, Talwar found that over 80% of children peeked.  What’s more, over 80% of children lied about peeking when asked.

Dr. Talwar’s research on children and lying shatters a longstanding misconception.  We tend to view lying in children as a reliable and valid measure of their moral development.  We see truthfulness and honesty in our children as the holy grail of emotional maturity and lying as a deeply entrenched characterological flaw.  However, these can be dangerous assumptions.  So why do kids lie in the first place?  In short, they lie because it works.  Lying serves a key functional purpose for the child.  It is a quick, often effective way to avert a negative consequence and/or obtain a desired outcome.  It’s hard for us as adults to understand how kids just don’t seem to “get” how lying can erode the foundation of a family relationship. Fortunately, for most children, they will eventually get it, just not until their brain is fully developed.   As a child’s brain develops, so too does their ability to estimate the short- and long-term outcomes of the choices they make.   What’s more, as a child matures and enters adulthood, they develop and solidify their own personal identity and value system.  They slowly develop the skills to control emotional and behavioral impulses that can make lying almost uncontrollable at a young age.  While lying may be a normal developmental phenomenon in children, I am not advising we adopt an “oh, well” attitude and condone this behavior.  Instead, once we de-pathologize lying and see it from a developmental perspective, we get a better idea of how to respond to it.

Let’s go back to Talwar’s research.  She was interested in seeing if there was anything she could do to reduce the frequency of lying.  She came up with a clever twist to her original experiment.  This time, half of the children were read the fable of ‘The Boy who Cried Wolf’ before participating in the same guessing game described above.  In this story, the boy is punished for lying about being attacked by a wolf.  The other half of children were read the story of ‘George Washington in the Cherry Tree.’  Unlike in the boy who cried wolf, the main character in this story (young George Washington) is rewarded by his grandfather for being truthful and honest.  Lying significantly decreased among the children who were exposed to young George’s truthfulness and honesty being met with warmth and joyous praise from his grandfather.  Even more surprising, children who heard the story of The Boy who Cried Wolf lied more.

What do we typically do when we suspect our child is lying?  We hold court, employing our amateur CSI interrogation techniques, hoping to trip up our child and catch them in a lie.  I’d invite you to consider that only serves to make your child a more competent liar.  You interrogation efforts may lead to a full confession, but simultaneously your child internalizes the experience, learning form their mistakes and improving their deception skills.  A better approach may be to shift your focus from finding instances of lying to instead finding instances of honesty and truth telling in your child.  If parents are serious about getting their child to stop lying, then the warmth and praise in response to instances of truth telling must be more frequent and more intense than the scolding for lying behavior.