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Learning to Lie

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By the time a child reaches school age, the reasons for lying become more complex. Avoiding punishment is still a primary catalyst for lying, but lying also becomes a way to increase a child’s power and sense of control—by manipulating friends with teasing, by bragging to assert status, and by learning he can fool his parents.

Thrown into elementary school, many kids begin lying to their peers as a coping mechanism, as a way to vent frustration or get attention. Any sudden spate of lying, or dramatic increase in lying, is a danger sign: Something has changed in that child’s life, in a way that troubles him. “Lying is a symptom—often of a bigger problem behavior,” explains Talwar. “It’s a strategy to keep themselves afloat.”

In longitudinal studies, a majority of 6-year-olds who frequently lie have it socialized out of them by age 7. But if lying has become a successful strategy for handling difficult social situations, a child will stick with it. About half of all kids do—and if they’re still lying a lot at 7, then it seems likely to continue for the rest of childhood. They’re hooked.

"My son doesn’t lie,” insisted Steve, a slightly frazzled father in his mid-thirties, as he watched Nick, his eager 6-year-old, enthralled in a game of marbles with a student researcher in Talwar’s Montreal lab. Steve was quite proud of his son, describing him as easygoing and very social. He had Nick bark out an impressive series of addition problems the boy had memorized, as if that was somehow proof of Nick’s sincerity.

Steve then took his assertion down a notch. “Well, I’ve never heard him lie.” Perhaps that, too, was a little strong. “I’m sure he must lie some, but when I hear it, I’ll still be surprised.” He had brought his son to the lab after seeing an advertisement in a Montreal parenting magazine that asked, “Can Your Child Tell the Difference Between the Truth and a Lie?”

Steve was curious to find out if Nick would lie, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer. The idea of his son’s being dishonest with him was profoundly troubling.

But I knew for a fact his son did lie. Nick cheated, then he lied, and then he lied again. He did so unhesitatingly, without a single glimmer of remorse.

Nick thought he’d spent the hour playing a series of games with a couple of nice women. He had won two prizes, a cool toy car and a bag of plastic dinosaurs, and everyone said he did very well. What the first-grader didn’t know was that those games were really a battery of psychological tests, and the women were Talwar’s trained researchers working toward doctorates in child psychology.

One of Talwar’s experiments, a variation on a classic experiment called the temptation-resistance paradigm, is known in the lab as “the Peeking Game.” Through a hidden camera, I’d watched Nick play it with another one of Talwar’s students, Cindy Arruda. She told Nick they were going to play a guessing game. Nick was to sit facing the wall and try to guess the identity of a toy Arruda brought out, based on the sound it made. If he was right three times, he’d win a prize.

The first two were easy: a police car and a crying baby doll. Nick bounced in his chair with excitement when he got the answers right. Then Arruda brought out a soft, stuffed soccer ball and placed it on top of a greeting card that played music. She cracked the card, triggering it to play a music-box jingle of Beethoven’s Für Elise. Nick, of course, was stumped.

Arruda suddenly said she had to leave the room for a bit, promising to be right back. She admonished Nick not to peek at the toy while she was gone. Nick struggled not to, but at thirteen seconds, he gave in and looked.

When Arruda returned, she could barely come through the door before Nick—facing the wall again—triumphantly announced, “A soccer ball!” Arruda told Nick to wait for her to get seated. Suddenly realizing he should sound unsure of his answer, he hesitantly asked, “A soccer ball?”

Arruda said Nick was right, and when he turned to face her, he acted very pleased. Arruda asked Nick if he had peeked. “No,” he said quickly. Then a big smile spread across his face.

Without challenging him, or even a note of suspicion in her voice, Arruda asked Nick how he’d figured out the sound came from a soccer ball.

Nick cupped his chin in his hands, then said, “The music had sounded like a ball.” Then: “The ball sounded black and white.” Nick added that the music sounded like the soccer balls he played with at school: They squeaked. And the music sounded like the squeak he heard when he kicked a ball. To emphasize this, his winning point, he brushed his hand against the side of the toy ball.


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