I was watching Nightline on ABC the other night, and they were doing a story about children lying. It was fascinating because this is a topic I have been interested in for a long time, and it is something I deal with on occasion at school. Sure, children lie, but so do adults. I am wondering if lying is a natural born instinct or a learned behavior - a twist on the classic nature-nurture argument.
Researchers at McGill University in Montreal believe that lying is a natural milestone for children. The essence of their work suggests that lying is part of their normal development, and it is a form of higher intelligence. These researchers have conducted numerous experiments on this topic. The experiment highlighted on this show placed individual children seated in a room, facing the wall. The children were told to guess what toy was sitting on the table behind them. They were told not to look at the toy, just make a guess. The researcher left the room and watched from outside. 80 percent of the children peaked at the toy.
Then, when the adult returned to the room and asked if the child
turned around to look at the toy, the kids tended to lie. In fact, the researchers found
that 74 percent of kids ranging in age from 4 to 7 lied about it.
"These are not bad children, these are very typical children," said Victoria Talwar, an assistant professor at Montreal's McGill University specializing in developmental psychology. "It is a natural, normal behavior that children will occasionally tell lies."
Lying is normal, natural? According to Talwar and her team of research assistants, lying is a positive developmental milestone. "It's a part of normal development and understanding the difference between what's true and convincing someone else of an altered truth — actually really takes a lot of intelligence to do that," said researcher Cindy Arruda.
The phrase "kids lying" instinctively sounds like a bad thing, but in the lab, the researchers view lying as an important part of social communication that builds empathy. "The fact is that lying is not a good behavior. It's very clear in society that we don't want people to lie … on the other hand," Talwar continued, "lying is a good thing in that it is a by-product of a positive development in children. So when we see lying in children, it's actually a marker of this ability to understand someone else's perspective and what they're going through."
Dr. Talwar and her team present an interesting perspective, and one I had not considered until now. So often, I have worked with children who have lied to me in an attempt to stay out of trouble. 21 years of experience as an educator have taught me how to recognize the signs that a child is lying, and my instincts are almost always correct. I have said to children a thousand times to "tell me the truth now. If you lie, it only makes it worse." But, if the experts at McGill are correct, then I should expect children to lie to me about 75% of the time, and I should not be angry or disappointed in them.
However, I am wondering if three-fourths of all children are hard-wired at birth to lie automatically. Can it be possible that lying is a learned behavior? We know that adults lie (fib?) about things all the time. We lie to children in order to keep them from doing something we perceive as rude (don't crack your knuckles, it will cause arthritis), to keep a secret from them (where do babies come from?), to help them believe in something that is not true (Santa Claus, the tooth fairy), or to keep them safe and healthy (I never even tasted beer until I was 21).
We also know that adults lie about more serious things as well. Often, lying is the way people make money, stay out of trouble, cheat others, and spread harmful gossip or rumors. Whether children are aware of the more serious adult lies, I am not sure. But never underestimate the perceptiveness of kids. They know much more than we think they know.
What do you think? Are children natural born liars? If so, then maybe we need to rethink the way we discipline them when they are caught in a lie. Or do children learn to lie by watching and listening to us adults do it? If that is the case, we need to work on our behavior.
By the way, for my next post, I will be writing about the huge fish I caught while vacationing in the Bahamas.