A lie is any deliberate deviation from the truth; it is a falsehood communicated with the intention to mislead or deceive.
Lies differ in type, incidence, magnitude and consequence, with many gradations of severity, from harmless exaggeration and embellishment of stories, to intentional and habitual deceit. Behavioral scientist Wendy Gamble identified four basic types of lies for a University of Arizona study in 2000:
- Prosocial: Lying to protect someone, to benefit or help others.
- Self-enhancement: Lying to save face, to avoid embarrassment, disapproval or punishment.
- Selfish: Lying to protect the self at the expense of another, and/or to conceal a misdeed.
- Antisocial: Lying to hurt someone else intentionally.
Lying is considered by most child development specialists to be a natural developmental occurrence in childhood. Though there is no empirical data about how children learn to lie, parental honesty is recognized as a primary influence on the development of truthfulness in children.
Making up stories is part of a normal fantasy life for young children. It is a positive sign of developing intelligence and of an active and healthy imagination. Preschool children who are beginning to express themselves through language are not yet able to make a clear distinction between reality and make-believe. Storytelling at this age is seldom an intentional effort to deceive. When preschool children do engage in intentional deceit, it is usually to avoid reprimand. They are concerned with pleasing the parent, and may fear the punishment for admitting a mistake or misdeed.
Many children are socialized by their parents at a very early age to tell "white"; lies to avoid hurting another's feelings. "White lies" or "fibs" are commonplace in many households and social settings and are observed and imitated by children. The incidence of prosocial or "white lies," tends to increase in children as they grow older.
Dr. Kang Lee of the Department of Psychology at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, observed young children telling so-called "white lies" to avoid disappointing the researcher. Such prosocial lying behavior occurred in children as young as age three. Dr. Lee's research found that over 60 percent of the 400 boys and girls he studied would pretend to be pleased when asked how they liked a used bar of soap, given as a prize after playing a game with researchers. When parents instructed the children to "be polite" when the researcher asked if they liked the soap, as many as 80 percent of these children, ages three to 11 years of age were dishonest.
Dr. Michael Lewis of Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, has found that as many as 65 percent of the children he studied had learned to lie by age two and one half. This research also reveals a correlation between higher IQ and the incidence of lying in children.
Children from age five or six have learned the difference between lies and truth. The motives for lying in this age group are more complex. Prosocial lying may increase, particularly among peers, to avoid hurting another's feelings. In addition, if a parent's expectations for the child's performance are too high, the child may engage in self-enhancing lies out of fear of censure. School-age children also experiment with selfish lies to avoid punishment, or to gain advantage. They are testing the limits as they try to understand how the rules work and what the consequences may be for stepping out of bounds.
By age seven children have developed the ability to convincingly sustain a lie. This capacity has serious implications with regard to children's competency to testify in a court of law. The veracity of child witnesses and their understanding of the concept of an oath are important research issues. Children at this age recognize the difference between what they are thinking and how they can manipulate the thinking of another to serve their own ends.
The type and frequency of lies and the reasons why a child may be dishonest are also related to their stage of moral development .
Children progress sequentially through several stages of moral development, according to psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg:
- avoiding punishment
- doing right for self-serving reasons
- fitting in with and pleasing others
- doing one's duty
- following agreed upon rules
- acting on principles
Adolescents are developmentally involved in becoming independent persons. They are working hard to establish their own identity, one that is separate from that of their parents. Peer approval is more important than parental approval during adolescence . Conflicts during these years between parental control versus personal autonomy may lead to increased lying to preserve a sense of separation and power from parents, teachers, and other authority figures. Adolescents may also lie to cover up serious behavior problems. A discerning parent will attempt to discover the motive behind the lie.
Childhood lying has many causes, including the need to maintain parental approval, to gain attention, to avoid disappointing others, to evade the consequences of misbehavior, or to avoid responsibility. Older children may lie as a means of breaking away from parental control. Issues of self-esteem , fear of consequences, the desire to have one's own way, the need to gain attention, or to protect oneself from harm, are also a factor. Difficult circumstances in the home and social environment of the child may increase the likelihood of problem lying.
Early intervention in the case of compulsive lying may reduce the risk of the child developing a life-time habit of deceit. Children who are chronic liars are often found to engage in other antisocial behaviors. If a child's lying is accompanied by fighting, cheating, stealing , cruelty, and other impulse control problems, appropriate intervention is required. Lying that is consistently self-serving with no prosocial motive is a serious issue. Lying with malice and without any sign of remorse may indicate that the child has not yet developed a moral conscience, and may need help to move toward a higher stage of moral development, one that includes a concern for the impact of one's actions upon others.
Children become more adept liars with practice. As they grow older it may become increasingly difficult for a parent, teacher or caregiver to detect dishonesty. Close observation and familiarity with the child, as well as an understanding of their developmental stage, are critical to the diagnosis of problem lying.
Most children with the benefit of a loving family environment, one where honesty is valued and modeled and dishonesty is appropriately challenged, will more often than not come to recognize that lying is not an acceptable behavior. Early and appropriate intervention when problem lying persists will increase the possibility that the child will choose honesty in subsequent interactions.
Children may observe much routine dishonesty in the home, school and surrounding culture. Parental examples of honesty in interpersonal relationships are critical if a child is to develop an ethic of truthfulness. Children commonly experiment with lying in the natural course of development. They need help recognizing and understanding the distinction between prosocial and antisocial lying.
Exaggeration and embellishment when relating incidents or telling stories, and the so-called "white lies," told to avoid disappointing or hurting others feelings, do not have the negative, antisocial consequences of serious lying. Parents should intervene when the lying is of a serious nature and explain the impact of dishonesty on another's feelings. This will help the child to develop a moral sense of right and wrong and to value honesty in interpersonal relationships.
Repetitive lying can develop into a serious habit leading to adjustment problems later in life. Lying that persists and worsens year after year is cause for concern. Chronic lying is often accompanied by other antisocial behaviors. Adolescents may lie to cover up illicit drug or alcohol abuse. Early parental intervention in situations of serious lying may interrupt the formation of a habit of lying in young children. Parents who model truth telling and praise honesty will encourage trust in the parent-child relationship.
When to call the doctor
Serious and repetitive lying may require the professional intervention of a school psychologist or a community mental health agency. Counseling may help to uncover any underlying conditions such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD), bipolar disorder , or learning disabilities. Pathological lying often accompanies serious psychiatric problems such as conduct disorder or antisocial personality disorder , which normally have their onset during adolescence. Children who use lying as a primary means of avoiding personal responsibility, particularly in adolescence, may be attempting to cover up more serious problems with substance abuse.
Antisocial personality disorder —A disorder characterized by a behavior pattern that disregards for the rights of others. People with this disorder often deceive and manipulate, or their behavior might include aggression to people or animals or property destruction, for example. This disorder has also been called sociopathy or psychopathy.
Conduct disorder —A behavioral and emotional disorder of childhood and adolescence. Children with a conduct disorder act inappropriately, infringe on the rights of others, and violate societal norms.
Prosocial behaviors —Social behavior characterized by positive, cooperative, and reciprocal social exchanges.
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