4 Things You Need to Know About Lying

A few days ago, I shared a story told to me by a fellow Autistic mom friend (see Facebook post below). I’ve been wanting to write about children and lying for a long time now and just never had the inspiration. That all changed when I learned what my friend had done. It was beautiful! I’m so pleased to get moving on this topic and offer some education and guidance I’ve learned along the way. Let’s get right into it!

1. Our Children Are Not Manipulating Us

According to the word experts, deception involves convincing someone of something that is not consistent with the facts and manipulation involves controlling someone without their knowledge to one’s own benefit. Can children really do these things? Adults often assume children are capable of behaviors that are beyond them. The Zero to Three Foundation found the following in a survey they conducted:

About half of parents believe that children are capable of self-control and other developmental milestones much earlier than they actually are.

43% of parents think children can share and take turns with other children before age 2, and 71% believe children have this ability before age 3. In fact, this skill develops between 3 to 4 years.

36% of parents surveyed said that children under age 2 have enough impulse control to resist the desire to do something forbidden, and 56% said this happens before age 3. In fact, most children are not able to master this until between 3.5 to 4 years of age.

While children may be capable of the cognitive and social process that results in deception, manipulation requires skill, scheming, and intent. To manipulate, children must:

  • Understand the intent of someone else’s behavior or actions. In neurotypical children, this ability begins around 15 months.
  • Know that what they want is, in fact, different from the person they’re addressing.
  • Develop an alternative version of the facts that they will use to convince someone of their perspective.
  • Convincingly present the narrative.
  • Avoid revealing the facts they are concealing.

These skills grow with age, of course. In children, what we often read as manipulation is an effort to address unmet needs. Children get our attention however they can, and they communicate through behavior. By the technical definition, sure, children can demonstrate many of the qualities needed for manipulation, but it is both childist and ableist to respond to a child’s behavioral communication with such an accusation. We can advance anti-childist aims by using different words. Our children aren’t manipulating us. They are seeking connection and support.

2. Lying is Developmentally Appropriate

The ability to deceive marks an important point in development where children begin to understand that reality involves different experiences. The flip side of deception is a child who is better able to empathize because they start to understand that experiences vary, even within the same life circumstances.

Younger children are also apt to make-believe both out of a need for fun and also when they want to escape their experience (or the consequences of it). Their imaginations run wild and they dream up an outcome that they like better. We should want our children to do this! The ability to see a better way is the basis for all true justice.

And, then, of course, is the fact that little kids do not deceive very effectively, because they are simply not yet sophisticated enough to understand practical neuroscience the way adults can through instinct and observation. While they are still in this stage, we can model honesty and talk about what it means to tell the truth. We can explain the difference between truth and accuracy and help our kids see truth from many perspectives. We can talk about the (life) consequences of lying versus telling the truth, because telling the truth can be hurtful. They need parameters and examples and, above all, acceptance and understanding from us.

Our response is never more important than it is with our neurodivergent children. Keep in mind that children with ADHD face lots of memory scrambling and disorganization as a result of their neurology. They may not remember with great accuracy and their brains may simply be moving too fast to catch all the details they need. Likewise, Autistic children are often known as being very honest, but this may not actually be the case. Many Autistic children are comfortable with the facts; so comfortable, in fact, that they can make the facts work to their advantage in a way that is deceptive. They may stick to the letter of the law, even when they know a spirit of the law exists. It’s all part of negotiating a typical world with a divergent mind.

3. Lying Actually Has Some Benefits

Author Michael Lewis wrote a fascinating piece for the American Scientist called The Origins of Lying and Deception in Everyday Life. In it, he proposes a taxonomy of lying and deception that can help us parse out the motivations and intentions of our children when they lie. I’ve touched on a couple of these already in this piece, and I will include them here to provide a complete picture of his ideological framework. He names four types of lies:

  • Lying to protect the feelings of another
  • Lying for self-protection to avoid punishment
  • Lying to the self, or self-deception
  • Lying to hurt others

The first three relate to cognitive skills that we (should) want our children to develop. Consider the following instances:

Lying to protect the feelings of another

Many of us tell our children to smile and be “gracious” when we receive a gift of an item we already have. I know I was given this directive as a child. And, I know that it did not come naturally to me to tell a so-called little white lie to protect the feelings of the people who gave me gifts because they loved me.

How many of us are completely honest in our relationships? How many of us have lost relationships because we we revealed just a little too much? Children as young as 3 may be able to discern the trajectory of a question and spare someone’s feelings by adjusting the truth. This skill is an early one for neurotypical humans, which leads me to wonder if it is an aspect of social survival that is built into children’s natural development. In that case, a nuanced and developmentally sensitive approach to talking about lying is certainly warranted.

Lying for self-protection to avoid punishment

Lying to avoid harm is a very early development for humans. Children as young as two-and-a-half will try to deceive their parents to avoid an uncomfortable punishment. And, frankly, this is also something we should want our children to be able to do.

This form of self-preservation extends beyond the safety of the parent-child relationship. Think about how we’d hope our children would address predators who mean them harm. Would we affirm our children for lying to a potential kidnapper if it meant keeping them safe? I daresay we would! Yes, I’d want my children to say whatever they needed to say in order to escape harm. This kind of lying also requires a nuanced approach.

Lying to the self, or self-deception

Self-deception is one way we preserve our mental health. We can come up with reasons to accept a hard reality, such as being rejected from a job, that may or may not be accurate for the situation. A lot of people simply call this positive thinking and it can be both helpful and harmful.

As it applies to children, giving them hope is helpful. Encouraging them not to dwell on painful things, but rather to work through them can keep their mental health intact. However, they can also self-deceive in a direction that causes them hurt, such as a teenager not being able to admit a substance abuse struggle. Again, nuanced is most certainly called for here.

Lying to Hurt Others

Now, the one type of lying that has no real social or personal benefit. If you see a pattern where your child does lie simply to inflict pain or shame onto someone else, please keep the option open to call on a mental health professional.

4. We Shouldn’t “Catch” Our Children in Lies

As with everything else we do, our response to lying must be conscious and connected. Loudly accusing a child of lying will get us nowhere and may, in fact, push the child to retreat further into the deception in hopes of avoiding more scary reactions from us.

You can help prepare yourself for the stages of development by doing some research and reading of your own. I’ll get you started by letting you know that most neurotypical children gain the ability to deceive around 2-years-old; they begin to be able to cover their tracks around 4-years-old; and, they can both understand different perspectives and hold onto a falsehood around 7-years-old. However, even at age seven, your child is very, very young and is still learning how their dishonesty lands. It will be many years more before they can effectively deceive and manipulate.

It is absolutely crucial that we, as peaceful parents, prioritize dialogue over coercion and control. The less we rely on rules to force our children into a mold of our making and, instead, get to know their hearts and fulfill their needs, the easier it will be for them to be honest with us. As you likely know by now, demanding a child to tell you why they’ve lied is usually fruitless. While they might seem calm, children who are found lying are often in a state of distress. So, we can start by letting our children know we love them and we want to help them. The next step is to ask the right questions to get the dialogue going. Here are some prompts to try:

If your child is very young and first exploring these limits, be invested. For instance, if a child claims that an imaginary friend did the thing that the child did, ask about it. “Hmm… I wonder why [friend] did that?” Taking an inquisitive approach and investing in the story can help draw out the truth.

If it’s an easy fix, be helpful. “I see that [state what you see]. May I help you [state resolution]?” Immediately offering to help without first scolding or accusing will build trust with your child.

If you know the truth, be curious. “I see that [state what you see]. What were you hoping to do?” You’ll give your child an opportunity to explain themself, so that you’ll have the information you need to help rectify what’s happened.

If you can see that your child is afraid of the consequences, be loving. “Is that what you wish happened?” This one is a beautiful way to connect with a child’s heart and let them know you receive their intent and will honor it.

If you notice that your child keeps lying about the same thing, be proactive. “I know you want to [state desire]. I get it! Next time, please come tell me first and I will help you.”

I encourage you also to work toward an environment where deception is received neutrally and resolutions are always accessible. Give your child less reason to deceive by avoiding punishment at all times, guarding their vulnerability, not harping on past deceptions, and helping your child see a way out of a tough situation. And, of course, think about how you will impart your family’s values around the types of lying that are socially acceptable, and even prescribed. Particularly for neurodivergent children, the boundaries and expectations around “little white lies” must be directly indicated.

A final note: There may be cases when children doggedly hold onto a lie. While deception from children is completely normal and expected, extreme commitment to a lie could be a sign that your child is going through something they can’t manage on their own, such as declining mental health or abuse. It’s so important to pay attention and keep the dialogue open.

If you suspect abuse, you can make a report to your state to get the process started on an investigation. If your child reports abuse, it’s important that you receive what they’re saying without suggesting that you don’t believe. Limit questions to what happened, where and when it happened, and by whom. Asking leading questions (such as suggesting a name of a potential culprit) could hinder the success of a future investigation. Check out a brochure for mandated reporters to understand how they handle cases of suspected abuse. And, see this site for a contact in your state (within the U.S.) for reporting child abuse and neglect.

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