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Researching Reasons Why Children Lie

The Hartford Courant

Of course your children lie to you. Rare indeed would be a kid who didn’t try from time to time to put something over on a parent. Even if you insisted on the importance of truth. Even if you were a psychology professor. Even if you were an expert on lying.

Even if you are Paul Ekman, author of “Why Kids Lie” (Scribner’s).

Ekman, a professor at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco, has been researching emotion, lying and expressions for more than 30 years. He has published extensively and has been interviewed many times on lying.

Just the other day, he says by way of example, his 9-year-old daughter came back from the pool an hour late. She said she couldn’t find her watch. Why would she lie?

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“Because she’s a kid,” Ekman says, laughing.

“Virtually every kid will lie,” Ekman says. But in most cases, it’s not cause for serious concern.

Start When Preschoolers

Children begin telling fantasies--they aren’t untruths--when they’re preschoolers. Only when they’re older can they deliberately lie.

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If an older child chronically lies, or if lying persists over a long period of time, “parents have a very serious reason to be concerned,” Ekman says. Research shows such children have a significantly greater chance of being troubled as adults, he says.

But the common type of lying shouldn’t be ignored, Ekman says. Parents should consider:

--What’s the child’s motive? It could be to avoid punishment, to impress, to get something he couldn’t otherwise have. With adolescents, particularly, it may be to protect privacy.

--What in my behavior as a parent has led my child to do this? “Most frequently, a child’s afraid of harsh punishment,” Ekman says, “or the toxicity of a parent’s anger.” It’s understandable that a parent would be angered by a child’s lie, but being severe only encourages a child to become more clever about lying, he says.

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--Have I in any way acted as a model for lying? If you lie to get a pushy sales clerk off the phone, saying, “I’m sorry, I’m on my way out,” the lesson is not lost on children. “They learn lying is a useful behavior for handling uncomfortable social situations.”

Parents should use children’s lies as an opportunity to teach the value of being truthful, he says. But too often, it’s done in the wrong way. For example, parents might badger a child to tell all the details of a misdeed. Adults, by law, are not forced to incriminate themselves: “We have the Fifth Amendment,” Ekman says. “Why should you expect a child to do things adults don’t do?”

And “parents must try to remember what it was like to be a child,” he says. Parents should avoid entrapment, “the policeman syndrome,” Ekman says.

He recommends that parents try to teach their children that telling lies has a greater cost than any trouble caused by telling the truth; that older children learn the importance and fragility of trust.

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Truth is having a tough time in America now, Ekman says. Organized religion and extended families, which emphasized to children the importance of telling the truth, have declined in influence. More children are in one-parent families, or both parents work: “There isn’t enough parenting to go around.”

Different Parental Styles

Sheer busyness prevents some parents from teaching their children as they did in the past. “Most people don’t think about it until they get in trouble with it,” Ekman says.

It’s often easier to ignore minor untruths than deal with them, Ekman notes, and there is the variable of parental style: Some might choose not to make an issue over a particular misdeed.

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Ekman’s wife, for example, wouldn’t have made an issue of their 9-year-old’s lie about her lateness. He, though, showed her that he understood why she would want to lie, told her she could tell him the truth without penalty, and that there was a price to pay, albeit small in this case--making lunch for herself.


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