Liars at any age

New York Magazine has an article, “Learning to Lie,” that every parent or person contemplating being a parent should read. An earlier post, “Born Liars,” reported on the innate ability of babies to deceive. The New York Magazine article is a comprehensive look at lying from childhood through adolescence. Here are a few snippets:

[B]right kids—those who do better on other academic indicators—are able to start lying at 2 or 3. “Lying is related to intelligence,” explains Dr. Victoria Talwar, an assistant professor at Montreal’s McGill University and a leading expert on children’s lying behavior. . . . Many parenting Websites and books advise parents to just let lies go—they’ll grow out of it. The truth, according to Talwar, is that kids grow into it. In studies where children are observed in their natural environment, a 4-year-old will lie once every two hours, while a 6-year-old will lie about once every hour and a half. Few kids are exceptions.

It only gets worse. In a study conducted by Dr. Nancy Darling of high school students, she presented the students with 36 cards, each with a topic that teens sometime lie about to their parents.

Out of the 36 topics, the average teen was lying to his parents about twelve of them. The teens lied about what they spent their allowances on, and whether they’d started dating, and what clothes they put on away from the house. They lied about what movie they went to, and whom they went with. They lied about alcohol and drug use, and they lied about whether they were hanging out with friends their parents disapproved of. They lied about how they spent their afternoons while their parents were at work. They lied about whether chaperones were in attendance at a party or whether they rode in cars driven by drunken teens. . . . Being an honors student didn’t change these numbers by much; nor did being an overscheduled kid. No kid, apparently, was too busy to break a few rules.

Lest you think that children are born rotten, the article lays much of the blame on adults, from whom children learn much too well.

According to Talwar, they learn it from us. “We don’t explicitly tell them to lie, but they see us do it. They see us tell the telemarketer, ‘I’m just a guest here.’ They see us boast and lie to smooth social relationships.”

Consider how we expect a child to act when he opens a gift he doesn’t like. We instruct him to swallow all his honest reactions and put on a polite smile. Talwar runs an experiment where children play games to win a present, but when they finally receive the present, it’s a lousy bar of soap. After giving the kids a moment to overcome the shock, a researcher asks them how they like it. About a quarter of preschoolers can lie that they like the gift—by elementary school, about half. Telling this lie makes them extremely uncomfortable, especially when pressed to offer a few reasons why they like the bar of soap. Kids who shouted with glee when they won the Peeking Game suddenly mumble quietly and fidget.

Meanwhile, the child’s parent usually cheers when the child comes up with the white lie. “Often, the parents are proud that their kids are ‘polite’—they don’t see it as lying,” Talwar remarks. She’s regularly amazed at parents’ seeming inability to recognize that white lies are still lies.

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