Have you heard a child  say…
“I have a horse in my backyard.” (When she doesn’t.)
“I didn’t hit him.” (When he really did.)
“I’ll turn off the computer after I finish this game.” (Then she doesn’t.)

Starting at 2 or 3 years of age kids start lying. Being lied to is something that parents universally dislike and many parents worry about.

What most parents don’t know is that lying is a really important developmental stage. And once you understand why kids lie and you know how to address it, then lying becomes something that you don’t need to worry as much.

Why do kids say things that aren’t true?

There are 3 main reasons why kids lie to their parents (we’ll address those next week), but first let’s look at child development and take a quick peek at social evolution to see why all humans lie.

To be human, is to lie

“Researchers speculate that lying… arose not long after the emergence of language. The ability to manipulate others without using physical force likely conferred an advantage,” says the June 2017 edition of National Geographic. Lying is an important evolutionary skill.

According to research done 20 years ago by Bella DePaul, a social psychologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the average adult lies 1-2 times per day. Many of these lies are relatively harmless. We might say “I’m late because of the traffic” rather than, “I’m late because I didn’t leave the house on time.”

Lying is an important developmental milestone

Kang Lee, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, sees lying as a positive sign of cognitive growth because in order to lie effectively a child must have a “theory of mind”–the child must understand the difference between his and someone else’s perspective. It’s a “theory of mind” that allows a child to put himself in someone else’s shoes, which is essential for empathy.

Two year olds who lied in Lee’s study also had higher levels of executive functioning–planning, attention, and self-control.

The same two year olds who had lied in Lee’s study–when they became 16–outperformed other teens in measures of executive functioning and theory of mind.

Who knew that kid’s lying can be a good sign? A child needs to have a quick and well developed brain to lie.

For most people, lying is common, but limited

If you worry about your children lying, here is another study that might reassure you. Dan Ariely studies lying in adults. His research discovered that most of us lie, but only a little bit.

In Ariely’s study, participants got money for each math problem they completed during a timed test. Many adults inflated their scores to get more money, but most only lied a little.

Ariely says, “We give people a chance to steal lots of money, and people cheat only a little bit. So something stops us–most of us–from lying all the way” because we want to see ourselves as honest people.

So now that we understand that lying is a developmental milestone and we can be reassured  knowing that humans have a built-in limit to their lying, does that mean we just let kids lie to us? Nope.

As a parent or teacher, what do you do when a child lies?

Next week we’ll look at the 3 primary ways children lie and how you can handle it.

In part 2, we’ll address how to handle children “telling tall tales”, kids lying to avoid getting in trouble, and kids agreeing to something, but then not doing it.

In the comments, share a story about a child that lied to you. What did she say? And stay tuned for next week because we are talking about what to do when kids lie.