Learning (Not) To Lie

Children don't need to learn to lie, they need to learn how to resist the temptation

by Scott Williams

There have always been two schools of thought about the relationship between children and wrongdoing:

  • The "blank slate" argument holds that children are amoral at birth, and are wholly shaped by their environment and by significant people in their lives
  • The "inherent sin" argument holds that children are born sinful and don't need any corrupting influences to do wrong, just the opportunity.

I have always held to the latter argument (especially now that I have watched our seven children grow up). But in a recent article in New York magazine titled "Learning to Lie," author Po Bronson has made me do some thinking. My position hasn't changed, mind you, just become better informed. So my new position:

We're all born liars, and the more practice we have, the better we are at it.

Looking at studies from Penn State University, McGill University, State University of New York and the University of California at Santa Barbara, Bronson reported these observations

  • Despite what many popular books advise, children don't grow out of lying, they grow into it.
  • Lying is related to intelligence: Smarter kids make better liars.
  • Ninety-eight percent of teens believe lying is wrong, but the same percent admit lying to their parents.
  • When teens argue with parents about their wishes, it's often a positive alternative (relatively speaking) to the frequent first choice – just going behind their parents' backs.
  • Knowing that there are consequences motivates children not to lie less, but to not get caught.
  • An appeal to honesty is far more effective than the threat of punishment in getting children not to lie.

The whole article is fascinating. To me, the most eye-opening part of the story involved a study where subjects were asked to admit the biggest lie they ever told.

UCSB Researcher Bella DePaulo:

"I was fully expecting serious lies," DePaulo remarks. "Stories of affairs kept from spouses, stories of squandering money, or being a salesperson and screwing money out of car buyers."

And she did hear those kinds of whoppers, including theft and even one murder. But to her surprise, a lot of the stories told were about when the subject was a mere child-and they were not, at first glance, lies of any great consequence. "One told of eating the icing off a cake, then telling her parents the cake came that way. Another told of stealing some coins from a sibling." As these stories first started trickling in, DePaulo scoffed, thinking, "C'mon, that's the worst lie you've ever told?" But the stories of childhood kept coming, and DePaulo had to create a category in her analysis just for them. "I had to reframe my understanding to consider what it must have been like as a child to have told this lie," she recalls. "For young kids, their lie challenged their self-concept that they were a good child, and that they did the right thing."

Many subjects commented on how that momentous lie early in life established a pattern that affected them thereafter. "We had some who said, 'I told this lie, I got caught, and I felt so badly, I vowed to never do it again.' Others said, 'Wow, I never realized I'd be so good at deceiving my father, I can do this all the time.' The lies they tell early on are meaningful. The way parents react can really affect lying."

The idea I took away here, was that lying, no matter how small, is a big deal. Think about it. Lying requires, first, a recognition of the truth. Faced with the prospect of not looking good against the truth, a child or adult then has to devise an alternative, usually opposite version of the truth. Even before the lie is told, there has already been a conscious decision to reject the truth. Parents are so important in helping their children not be caught up in this pattern. Most importantly, parents need to be the examples of telling the truth, even to the point of avoiding white lies and socially polite (but disingenuous) remarks designed to evade conflict. The article also reveals that the children who lie the least are those who have a warm relationship with their parents, and who have open lines of communication with them. Conversely, it turns out that parents can often put children in situations that make lying more likely by cornering them into confession for minor offenses-like leaving a mess in the family room or forgetting to follow through on a responsibility. In actuality, simply reminding the child of the right thing to do may overlook that lie for that moment, but it is likely to prevent the child from repeating the offense the next time the opportunity presents itself. Lying, unfortunately, is a fact of life in a sin-crusted world. We need to be honest with ourselves and with our children. We are all tempted to lie, and each of us fails the truth test more than we care to admit. If our children are going to develop the discipline to always embrace the truth, it will be with our help. We do this by being honest and open ourselves. We need to constantly remind our children that lying is not as much deceiving others as it is being deceived ourselves. Satan is the father of lies, but God is the author of truth. Living uprightly before God means never having to be afraid of the truth. And we can assure them that God's forgiveness (as well as ours) in the face of sin is always there when they are willing to admit when they have fallen short of the truth.

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