Don’t lie to me! How often have parents shouted this command at the poor innocents in their care? But at the same time, adults often begrudgingly admire the quick-thinking ability of a child to lie their way out of a situation. Anthropologist Joy Hendry explains in her book Anthropology, lying is normal, after all, our politicians do it. So why teach children to not lie? Is it possible lying has a useful purpose?
In our country the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of the State.
George Washington, as a boy, was ignorant of the commonest accomplishments of youth. He could not even lie.
Now new research at Lancaster University by psychologist Lara Warmelink suggests “lying is an important skill” which children need to master as they grow up, she says. She explained that not learning “when to lie and how to do so convincingly” can lead to problems for older children. But lying too much isn’t good either.
Writing in an academic website The Conversation, in her article Pants on Fire, she says children need to be taught when lying is inappropriate without fear of being punished. Punishing children for lying, telling fibs is actually counterproductive. This was the theme of similar research published this week in Canada. The Canadian study found children were less likely to tell the truth if they feared being punished.
Quoting Dr Warmelink in her article,
Children learn to lie from about the age of two. The first lies children learn to tell are denials of wrongdoing. From the age of three they also learn to tell “white” lies. These are lies that are told to benefit other people or to be polite. For example, a child learns that when you’ve made a surprise birthday present for mummy, you don’t tell her about it and when your aunt gives you a present you should thank her, even if it’s horrible. Telling these lies well is an important social skill.
Young children start to learn to lie as they mature cognitively and socially. In order to lie, children have to understand that other people have their own beliefs and thoughts that are not the same as theirs. A child also has to realise that other people may believe things that are wrong. This is a skill called theory of mind and it develops slowly in the preschool and kindergarten years. As children become more able to think about what other people think and feel, they learn when it’s appropriate to lie and how to lie convincingly.
Research has shown that adolescents with lower social skills are less convincing when lying than their peers with better social skills. Persistent lying is also a sign that children have not developed socially and cognitively as much as their peers. Children who lie often are more likely to be aggressive, criminal or show other disruptive behaviour.
The negative effects of telling tales are related to whether it is perceived as lying by others, for example by parents or teachers. It is difficult to study whether children who lie a lot without others finding out also show these negative effects.
Photo: Wikimedia BARTOLUCCI STORE, PINOCCHIO DISPLAY