Lying relates to the idea of what children believe, a topic parents are always interested in understanding. Only if you understand it, can you know how to deal with it.
If a child deceives you but has no understanding of deception or no intention to deceive, we should react differently to that child than one who purposefully lied. What a child says may cause a person to believe something that is not true, but unless the child intends her words or behavior to have that effect we are reluctant to say she has deceived us.
When your three-year-old amusingly says, “I didn’t break the bowl and I won’t do it again” is she lying?
I’d be more likely to say she doesn’t understand lying precisely but is trying to avoid disapproval or rebuke or trying to get something she wants. She clearly doesn’t fully understand the contradiction she put out. She is thinking more about what her mother will do than what her mother believes. What she says is to influence her mother’s subsequent actions.
There’s a story about a three-year-old who said he was tired to get out of doing things he didn’t want to do. It sort of worked until he used the same excuse in an effort to avoid going to bed! Oh, my, kids do say the darndest things!
There are three criteria for an actual lie:
1. What is said must be false.
2. The person who says it must know it is false.
3. The person must want the other person who is listening to think it is true.
If these criteria are met, the child also wants to affect what others do, but she further wants to affect what others believe. If your child gets you out of bed by telling you the bathroom is flooded so she gets you to make her breakfast, she is into lying and tricking. This is a whole new process from the three-year-old who broke the bowl.
If what is said is false but the speaker doesn’t know it’s is false, we call it a mistake. If what is said is false and the speaker knows it is false but doesn’t intend anyone to believe it to be true, we could call it a joke, or irony, sarcasm, or a metaphor.
Only by six or seven do children call untrue statements lies and soon thereafter consider intention in deciding whether to blame people who say things are untrue.
Why This is All So Important
We have learned that even though kids use the same words we use, they may not mean the same things by them. Even adults are not entirely in agreement on what they would call a lie, but they do consider how what is said is untrue and how intending to deceive is more important than the actual truth of the statement.
As children come to understand false beliefs around the age of four, they start to tell deliberate lies and can deceive others. It is ironic that the result of the child’s discovery of the mind leads to the ability to tell lies and deceive. But this is only one aspect of understanding other people’s minds.
Parents should encourage their children to talk about their emotions—not only what they think and feel, but why and how. Children are really learning when they think about thinking and think about feeling. These are higher order abilities that parents and teachers can encourage and learn for themselves.
When we encourage an understanding of the mind in turn this leads to a clearer development of a positive sense of self. It also permits social understanding and communication—to think about other people’s points of view, to be empathic, to think of what might help and please others and make them feel happy is an astounding and remarkable achievement that affects children life-long.
Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. is a psychoanalyst with a new book, Unlocking Parental Intelligence: Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior, found on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Familius and wherever books are sold.