Psychologists have always been fascinated by lying. Why we do it, when we do it, how it starts and the effect it has on us as human beings. Lying in young children is pretty much ubiquitous. By this I mean it would be pretty unusual to find a two or three year old who hasn’t been caught in a lie at least once in their young life. Research suggests that children at this age are most likely to lie to get themselves out of trouble, but some will equally lie to get their siblings into trouble. Other common motivations are to control others’ behaviour – so telling a lie to get that extra cookie or some other desirable item. Children’s lies at this age are pretty self-serving, equally they’re pretty transparent and can often be uncovered with some probing questions. Many children will forget, or won’t know how, to follow through the implications of a lie.
While lying in little kids is usually nothing to worry about, many parents are very concerned that it should not continue. In the goal of raising truthful children, many wonder whether or not it is ok for parents to lie and how parental lying may affect children. Does telling children lies, mean that they themselves are more likely to lie?
Well, the news from social learning theory (Bandura, 1971) is that children learn from observation, particularly from individuals who are similar to themselves. Because lying is a social behaviour if a parent lies and the child is aware of the lie and sees the parent lying, she may be more likely to lie in the future. Experiments show that when an adult lies to a child and the child realises she has been lied to, she is more likely to lie herself.
I guess the message here is pretty clear. If you care about truthfulness, don’t lie. Or if you must lie – don’t get found out!