The report card says your son didn't turn in half of his math assignments, even though he swore every night that he did his homework. Your neighbor tells you about a party that the kids had while you were away, and you've just caught your 5-year-old fibbing about finishing the cookies.
Is this the first sign of serious behavior problems? Or just a part of normal childhood development?
In recent years, researchers have turned to the phenomenon of lying that begins at a very early age. Children engage in deception for many of the same reasons that adults do. Lies allow punishment to be avoided. Cheating can help a child gain an advantage. Fibs may temporarily boost self-esteem or protect a child from something that he or she doesn't want to face. Youngsters, like adults, sometimes lie to demonstrate power, to maintain privacy or to protect a friend.
"When a child lies, he is trying to change a situation, to reconstruct things the way he wants them to be," said Lewis Lipsitt, director of the Child Study Center at Brown University in Providence, R.I.
How often children lie is not known. But a recent study of 3-year-olds, conducted by researchers at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Rutgers, N.J., suggests that children learn to distort the truth very early.
In the study, 3-year-old children were seated in an empty room facing a one-way mirror. Next, a researcher came into the room, placed a toy on a table behind the child and told the youngster not to peek. The researcher then left.
Five minutes later, or sooner if the child looked at the object, the researcher returned. "Did you peek?" the child was asked.
Almost all--90%--of the children looked at the toy. But the majority of kids, about two-thirds, concealed the fact that they had peeked. Girls were more likely than boys to lie.
One-third of the children in the study lied outright to the experimenter. Another third simply didn't answer the question. "They pretended that they didn't hear the question," said Michael Lewis, director of the Institute for Child Development at Robert Wood Johnson and the lead author of the study. "They were sort of hoping that it would go away."
When the researchers looked at videotapes of the youngsters' faces, they found that the children not only knew how to tell a lie but also could give the right kind of facial expression to deceive the experimenter. "They have already learned the rules about how you should look if you don't want to admit that you have done something," Lewis said.
When researchers studied children ages 3 to 6, they found that older children were better at resisting the temptation not to peek at the toy. But those who did look were more apt to lie about it. And by age 6, boys were lying just as much as girls in the study.
"Both boys and girls end up lying, but girls seem to have started doing it earlier than boys," Lewis said. "My guess is that girls are learning about social rules earlier, and perhaps even better, than boys."
Videotapes of the children's faces showed another important difference in the older children. "After they have turned around and looked at the toy, they don't look very happy," Lewis said. "But they change their expression after the experimenter comes back. You can literally see them putting on a face."
Like everything else, youngsters learn to lie from the people around them, and parents are usually the best teachers. "A lot of socialization has to do with learning to lie well," said Brown University's Lipsitt.
Parents teach children in subtle--and sometimes not so subtle--ways to suppress their natural honesty. "Look at that funny-looking man," a child will yell in a crowded store. "I don't like this!" a youngster will bluntly say when presented with a gift that he or she doesn't want. "Yuck!" says the child to food that doesn't taste good.
Through direct and indirect ways, parents slowly teach children that this kind of honesty is not always welcome. "Children must learn the borderline between telling the truth and not hurting other people," Lipsitt said. "The child learns to become discreet in what he or she reveals."
Children also observe active lying by their parents. In the book "Why Kids Lie," Mary Ann Mason Ekman wrote that after she caught her teen-age son lying about a party he gave, she spent a week monitoring the lying that she did in her own life. "I caught myself telling eight lies, two of them to my children," she writes.
She told a salesman that she had just bought a new vacuum cleaner. To a meter maid, she insisted that she had only run in the store for a minute. "And I told my mother on the phone that I loved the blouse that she had sent me for my birthday, which, in fact, I hated," she wrote.
To her then-6-year-old daughter, she said she was 10 years younger than her real age, and she told her son that her curfew as a teen-ager was 10:30 p.m., when she really didn't remember what her curfew had been.
"These were all lies of convenience," she writes. "These were lies I didn't need to tell. Even worse, I didn't even realize I was telling them until I focused on my own behavior."
At the same time, parents are often shocked when they discover that a child has lied. They feel hurt, betrayed, angry and embarrassed.
"You think, 'Is it my fault?' 'Did I give too much freedom?' " said Paul Ekman, professor of psychology at the University of California at San Francisco and author of "Why Kids Lie." "And then you think 'Why did he do this to me?' "
Parents are often convinced that this is the first step on the road to juvenile delinquency. But for the most part, "lying is a normal aspect of growing up," said Lipsitt. "Parents should surely not get worried about innocuous lying."
That doesn't mean that lies should be dismissed, however. "Every lie has an underlying cause," Lipsitt said. Parents need to ask themselves what a child is gaining by telling a lie.
Take the case of a youngster who brings home an expensive new toy. When asked, "Where did you get that toy?" the child says his friend gave it to him. But 20 minutes later, when the friend's mother calls to ask if the child has taken the toy, it becomes apparent that the youngster has "lifted" the toy from his friend.
"We often spend our time on the child's lie as though that were the important moral transgression, rather than the stealing," said Lewis of Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. It would be far more useful, Lewis and others contend, if parents would instead look at why the child stole the toy in the first place. "A kid lies for good reasons," he said, including to avoid punishment.
When a lie is discovered, the most important step a parent can take is "to cool down first before confronting a child," said the University of California's Ekman. The calmer the parent is in talking to the child, the more likely that the message about the need for truthfulness will get across.
It's also important, experts said, to discuss with children what the disastrous consequences are of lying. "Children need to learn that when they lie, they lose our trust," said Ekman.
Spanking or other physical punishment does not work well to stop children from lying. "Lying is a verbal task, and punishment should be handled verbally," Lipsitt said. "It certainly doesn't warrant physical punishment."
Sometimes lying is a sign that the youngster needs more attention, and perhaps stronger limits on daily activities. This may include requiring them to be on time for dinner; insisting that they go to bed promptly; making sure that they complete homework; limiting television time. The goal, said Stanley Greenspan, clinical professor of child health and development at George Washington University Medical School and author of "The Essential Partnership," is to increase the child's sense of security.