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Why Do They Lie? - Age Appropriate Alibis

Never say never when it comes to provocative prevarications. Even adults engage in the Little White One. But what happens when little whites become endless Big Ones?

"Liar, liar pants on fire..." the ancient chant of a chorus of fifth grade schoolchildren during recess on the playground in New York City. After partaking of Halloween candy the night before, they were admonishing one of their classmates, who during candy sharing, helped himself to more than the requisite allotment - and lied about it. Not such a big deal? He'll grow out of it? Not all child development specialists agree.

Learning to Lie

Why do kids lie in the first place? As the wonderful humorist Mark Twain claimed more than a century ago: "Everybody lies every day, every hour awake, asleep, in his dreams, in his joy, in his mourning. If he keeps his tongue still, his hands, his eyes, his attitude will convey deception. Apparently, deception is inherent to humanity."

Kids lie early, often, and for all sorts of reasons - to avoid punishment, to bond with friends, to gain a sense of control. But now there's a singular theory according to one researcher for one way this habit develops: They are just mirroring their parents.

No kidding ... Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and these myriad of mega myths are just the beginning of the boatload of bunk we feed our children in an effort to conform to social standards and cultural belief systems that seem to never end. "While these fabrications ultimately never damaged a child, fables and fantasies such as these are what starts the ball rolling in the first place," says Dorothea Berthen-Bright, Ed.D, an educational psychologist in New Haven, Conn. and the author of the upcoming "How To Handle Lies: A Parents Ultimate Workbook." "We as responsible parents need to look within and realize that if we're going to teach them to be truthful and honest, it all begins with ourselves."

In the last few years, a handful of intrepid scholars have decided it's time to try to understand why kids lie. In a study to assess the extent of teenage dissembling, Dr. Nancy Darling, then at Penn State University, recruited a special research team of a dozen under 21 undergraduate students. Enticing these high school students with gift certificates for free CDs, the students were presented with a deck of 36 cards, and each card in this deck listed a topic teens sometimes lie about to their parents. The teens and two researchers worked through the deck, learning what events the kid was lying to his parents about, and why.

They began the interviews admitting that yes, they should be truthful to their parents and not keep secrets, Darling observed. But by the end of the interview, the kids saw for the first time how much they were lying and how many of the family's rules they had actually broken. Darling's research observed that 98 percent of the teens reported lying to their parents.

Out of the 36 topics, the average teen was lying to his parents about twelve of them. The teens lied about how they spent their allowance, whether they'd started dating, and what clothes they wore while in the company of their friends. They lied about what movie they saw and with whom they went. They lied about alcohol and drug use and they lied about whether they were spending time with friends their parents disliked. They lied about how they spent their afternoons while their parents were at work. They lied about whether chaperones were in attendance at a party or whether they rode in cars driven by drunken teens. The bottom line? They lied, they lied and they lied some more.

Being an honors student didn't change these numbers by much and neither did being an overscheduled kid. No kid, apparently, was too busy to break a few rules. And no, these numbers applied not only to teens in State College, Pennsylvania. The teens in Darling's sample were compared to national averages on a number of statistics, from academics to extracurriculars.

For two decades, parents have rated honesty as the trait they most desired in their children. Other traits, such as confidence or good judgment, don't even come close. On paper, the kids are getting this message. In surveys, 98 percent said that trust and honesty were essential in a personal relationship. Depending on their ages, 96 to 98 percent said lying is morally wrong.

So when do the 98 percent who believe lying is wrong become the 98 percent who lie? The statistics speak for themselves and in part, many of these teens claimed they learned to lie from their parents.

Developmental Milestones?

Notwithstanding the research above, more fascinating research takes it even further: Lying behaviors begin very young, and believe it or not, bright kids - those who do better on other academic indicators - are able to start lying at the age of two or three. According to research conducted by Dr. Victoria Talwar, assistant professor of Montreal's McGill University and a leading expert on children's lying behaviors, it appears that not only is lying is related to intelligence, it is an advanced skill which Talwar has concluded as a developmental milestone. This would make sense, according to the experts. "Generally speaking, children lie to avoid punishment. They lie to get out of trouble, not to get into it," explains Susan Shapiro, Ph.D, MS,MS, RD, FADA, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles who practices in child development. "Unlike adults, who will lie to impress and flatter, children will lie when they feel there are under a reward and punishment system.

But lying should not be dismissed because children will continue with it." And according to further research by Talwar, children do not grow out of lying but grow into it, therefore stressing the exigency for honesty in the first place. "It should be noted that children respond to your behaviors as well. If you are trying to get out of a dinner date and say your car broke down and then drive off with your best friend to a party, your child will eventually discover what's happening and resent you, especially when you punish them for lying - the very behavior your displayed in the first place. You must be the catalyst who is honest," says Dr. Berthen-Bright. Having said that, we as parents are damned if we do or damned if we don't: the brighter our kids, the more savvy and sophisticated they will demonstrate with respect to lying.

Fast forward to college years: In another study in the last decade by David Knox and Caroline Schacht of East Carolina University, 92 percent of college students fessed up about how they had lied to their current or previous sexual partner, which led the research team to wonder if the other eight percent were lying as well. When did these college students begin to fib? According to the research, possibly very early in life.

Reasoning Theories

Since the advent of Piaget and Kohlberg, two of the biggest names in child development theory, parents have been knocking themselves out trying to deal with their lying children. Meghan Moody, Psy.D, a licensed psychologist in Los Angeles wonders if a correlation exists between childhood liars and substance abuse. "Some of the reasons they lie are more obvious, such as trying to get away with something and thereby evoking power and autonomy over an authority figure. They're creating a negative attention loop but this draws attention to themselves."

Some definitions of a liar:

  • Pathological Liar

    A pathological liar is usually defined as someone who lies incessantly to get their way and does so with little concern for others. A pathological liar genuinely does not know right from wrong. Pathological lying is often viewed as coping mechanism developed in early childhood and it is often associated with some other type of mental health disorder, such as an attachment disorder. A pathological liar is often goal-oriented (i.e., lying is focused - it is done to get one's way). Pathological liars have little regard or respect for the rights and feelings of others. A pathological liar often comes across as being manipulative, cunning and an egoist.
  • Compulsive Liar

    A compulsive liar is defined as someone who lies out of compulsion, that is, out of habit. Lying is their normal and reflexive way of responding to questions. Compulsive liars bend the truth about everything, big, small, innocuous, indifferent and irrelevant. For a compulsive liar, telling the truth is an awkward endeavor and discomfiting while their typical habit of lying feels right. Compulsive lying is usually thought to develop in early childhood, due to being placed in an environment where lying was a necessary evil. For the most part, compulsive liars are not overly manipulative and cunning (as in a Pathological Liar), rather they simply lie out of habit - an automatic response which is hard to break and one that takes its toll on relationships. Many a failed relationship has been based on this issue.

Lies or Alibis?

Lying that is probably not a serious problem: Young children (ages 4-5) often make up stories and tell tall tales. This is normal activity because they enjoy hearing stories and making up stories for fun. These young children may blur the distinction between reality and fantasy. Tattletales are another method these children utilize but more self-serving: If they tell on their friends they may be looked upon as the more honest and trustworthy of the group.

An older child or adolescent (ages 10-15) may also lie to be self-serving (e.g. avoid doing something or deny responsibility for their actions). Parents should respond to isolated instances of lying by talking to these children about the importance of truthfulness, honesty and trust before irrevocable issues present themselves. Some adolescents discover that lying may be considered acceptable in certain situations such as not telling a boyfriend or girlfriend the real reasons for breaking up because they don't want to hurt their feelings. Other adolescents may lie to protect their privacy or to help them feel psychologically individuated from their parents; i.e.: denying they sneaked out late at night with friends.

Lying that may indicate emotional problems: Some children, who know the difference between truthfulness and lying, tell elaborate stories which appear believable. Children or adolescents usually relate these stories vivaciously and vividly because they receive a lot of attention as they tell the lie. Others, such as children who experience some degree of neurological problems, tell another tale: According to Los Angeles pediatric neuropsychologist Barbara Moyer, Ph.D, "an interpretation of an extremely inaccurate self-perception and overwhelming desire for social acceptance in combination with behavioral reports lends support for a spectrum disorder. Therefore, it isn't always proof that children who lie indicate potential sociopaths!" Definitely something to consider!

Other children or adolescents, who otherwise present as responsible, may fall into a pattern of repetitive lying. They often feel that lying is the easiest way to deal with the demands of parents, teachers and friends. These children are usually not innately malevolent but the repetitive pattern of lying becomes an inveterate habit, one that takes on a life of its own and they feel compelled to continue, which may pave the way to inveterate and compulsive lying.

There are also some children and adolescents who are not bothered by lying or taking advantage of others. Other adolescents may frequently use lying to cover up another serious problem. For example, an adolescent with a serious drug or alcohol problem will lie repeatedly about where they have been, with whom they spend their time, what they were doing, and where the money went. This issue can easily segue into a more serious type of liar and a conduct disordered teen.

Warning Signs of Potentially Serious Psychopathy

  • A child who lies repeatedly and without remorse. These children have no regard for humanity and are often violent, abusive, and manipulative. "This could be a sign of an attachment disorder," offers Dr. Berthen-Bright. "Lies become a safety net and a matter of survival for an abused or abandoned child and they will do anything they can to ensure a cohesive home, even though they're instrumental in creating serious problems."
  • They place no value on loyalty. If they don't value honesty they certainly will not value loyalty. Liars like these generally begin very young and virtually never become truthful.
  • They begin to abuse animals., younger children and inanimate objects. These are the kids who beat up their dolls, break furniture, and hurt smaller children. Then they become highly defensive and manipulate the situation to their advantage; that is, lie their way out of the situation and become so masterful at the endeavor that they become "the angel" until the truth is finally revealed. Children such as these can become extremely dangerous and potentially incorrigible.

What to do if a child or adolescent lies: Parents are the most important role models for their children. When a child or adolescent lies, parents should take some time to engage in a serious discussion:

  • the difference between make believe and reality, lying and telling the truth,
  • the importance of honesty at home and in the community, and
  • alternatives to lying.

The first lie marks the discovery that her mind and thinking are separate from that of her parents. From about age 4 on, children lie for many of the same reasons adults do: they learn from these adults. Pressuring your child can cause him to continue to fabricate due to duress he may feel to tell the truth.

If a child or adolescent develops a pattern of lying that appears to be serious and repetitive, professional help may be indicated. Evaluation by a child and adolescent psychiatrist could help the child and parents understand the lying behavior and would also provide recommendations for the future. "Lying is never a viable substitute," says Lawrence Coleman, MA, MFT, a marriage and family therapist in Seattle. "Get them on the right track from the beginning."


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