The little white lies we tell our children to spare their feelings have to handled with care – children’s perceptions of truth and lies change as they grow.
We all lie to our children. Father Christmas, the tooth fairy, a man who can walk on water… these are, generally speaking, harmless stories that can help a child’s understanding of right and wrong and their moral understanding of the world. But this understanding changes as the child grows and develops.
Very young children interpret stories literally, without any kind of critical evaluation – truths are good and lies are bad. But as they grow up and gain more experience their ability to interpret intent and outcome becomes more developed. By the time they are 10 –12 years old, children become more aware that the boundaries between truth and lies are not so black and white and comfortably well-defined – moral judgement gets ever more complex.
Researchers led by Victoria Talwar, a Canada Research Chair in the Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology at Montreal’s McGill University studied the behaviour of 100 children aged 6 – 12. The children were shown a series of short films featuring puppets of children who either told the truth or told lies. The films were designed to discover how children perceive honesty and deceit to gain insight into their moral and social development.
Against all expectations, and regardless of their age, all the children were easily able to tell the difference between truth and lies.
There were however, two significant differences in the way the children decided which behaviours to forgive and which to condemn.
In some of the films, telling a lie would result in a negative outcome for another character, while in others, a lie intended to help someone else would have a negative outcome for the speaker.
For instance, in one of the films, a character made a false confession, claiming responsibility for another character’s misdeed in order to protect them. In this film, the younger children were found to be more likely to think this behaviour was bad.
Overall, younger children were less concerned about the negative effects of truth while the older children were more conflicted.
In other films puppets told a selection of different truths, including some not so nice truths, highlighting how these can hurt someone else. The children were asked whether the characters were being honest or dishonest, and choose whether those particular behaviours should be rewarded or punished.
Children are taught that lying is always bad, yet they also witness their parents telling little white lies to make life easier. Depending on the child’s age, and given that there are different kinds of truths and lies, this could be confusing – not all lies have negative consequences, and not all truths have positive consequences.
As they develop, children become more interested in the consequences of truth and lies. They also become more adept at looking at the intentions behind information that’s delivered verbally. Younger children may make their decisions based on what they’re told by parents and caregivers, reflecting a black-and-white view of truth and lies. But as children get older, they become more concerned with how these decisions will affect others, and how certain truths might be perceived by their peers.
Lying is costly. Keeping track of one’s lies and trying to maintain the plausibility of a fictional narrative as real-world events intrude is mentally taxing. The fear of getting caught can be a constant source of anxiety, and when it happens, the damage to one’s reputation can be lasting.
For the people who are lied to, there are also costs – lies undermine relationships, organizations and institutions.
However, the ability to lie and engage in other forms of deception is also a source of great social power because it allows people to shape interactions in ways that serve their interests. Liars can evade responsibility for their misdeeds, take credit for accomplishments that are not really theirs, and rally friends and allies to the cause.
Learning about lying is an important step in a child’s development – there are cognitive building blocks that must be in place in order to lie successfully. One way in which research psychologists have sought to understand the reasoning behind the choice between lying and telling the truth is to examine the way we first learn this skill in childhood.
In some studies, researchers asked children to play a game in which they could obtain a material reward by lying. In other studies, children were faced with social situations in which the more polite course of action involves lying instead of telling the truth. For example, an experimenter will offer an undesirable gift such as a bar of soap and ask the child whether he or she likes it. Yet another method is to ask parents to keep a written record of the lies their children tell.
The study set out to understand children’s thinking processes when they first work out how to deceive others – which for most children is around three and a half years-old – and the types of social experiences that may speed up this developmental process.
Young children were invited to play a simple game that they could only win by deceiving the experimenter. When the children told the truth, the experimenter won the treat, but when they lied, they won the treat for themselves. In the game, the child hid a treat in one of two cups while the experimenter covered her eyes. The experimenter then opened her eyes and asked the child where the treat was hidden – the child then responded by indicating one of the two cups. If the child indicated the correct cup, the experimenter won the treat, but if the child indicated the incorrect one, the child won the treat. They played 10 rounds of this game each day for 10 consecutive days.
This method of closely observing children over a short period of time allows for accurate tracking of behavioural changes, so researchers can observe the process of development as it unfolds. Children were tested as close as possible to their third birthday, which is before they typically know how to deceive. As expected, when they first started playing the game, most of them made no effort to deceive, and lost to the experimenter every time. But over the next few sessions most children discovered how to deceive in order to win the game – and after the initial discovery, they used deception consistently.
Not all the children worked out how to deceive at the same rate. At one extreme, some worked it out on the first day – at the other, some still consistently lost the game even at the end of the 10 days.
The rate at which individual children learned to deceive was related to certain cognitive skills. One of these – called by psychologists ‘theory of mind’ – is the ability to understand that others don’t necessarily know what you know. This skill is needed because when children lie, they intentionally communicate information that differs from what they themselves believe. Another one of these skills, cognitive control, allows people to stop themselves from blurting out the truth when they try to lie. The children who most quickly worked out how to deceive had the highest levels of both of these skills.
Competitive games can help children understand that deception can be used as a strategy for personal gain – once they have the underlying cognitive skills to work this out but it is important to keep in mind that the initial discovery of deception is not an endpoint. Rather, it’s the first step in a long developmental process.
After this discovery, children typically learn when to deceive. But in doing so they must sort through a confusing array of messages about the morality of deception. In the process, they usually learn even more about how to deceive.
Young children often inadvertently give away the truth when they try to dupe others, and they must learn to control their words, facial expressions and body language to be convincing. As they develop, they often learn how to employ more nuanced forms of manipulation, such as using flattery as a means to curry favour, steering conversations away from uncomfortable topics and presenting information selectively, to create a desired impression.
By mastering these skills, they gain the power to help shape social narratives in ways that can have far-reaching consequences for themselves and for others.
Research conducted by Gail Heyman, Professor of Psychology, University of California, San Diego.
Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.