why deception is called an art. To be good liars, children need a strong memory and
complex thinking skills.
Dr Elena Hoika tells Dr Nicola Davies
about the way children deceive their parents from a very early age!
‘Deception is defined by psychologists as knowingly saying
something false with the intent that your audience believes it’s true,’ explains
Dr Hoika, who has recently completed a research study on the subject at the University
of Sheffield. ‘With children, deception is also about knowingly withholding information
with the intent that your audience won’t realise you are withholding, such as when
a child doesn’t tell you he snuck some cake.’
In other words, deception is the use of a trick or scheme to get what you want, or
to cover up something which might get you into trouble.
When does it begin?
Research shows that deception starts young. ‘A large body of research since the 1980s
suggests kids start deceiving from age three,’ says Dr Hoika. ‘The most common experiment
asking kids not to peek at something tempting, and then asking them if they peeked.
Most three-year-olds will lie about peeking.’
Children may well start deceiving, or at least trying to deceive, even earlier than
three, although currently there’s a lack of scientific research to support it. But
most parents have anecdotal
experiences to share that suggest deception can start before the age of three.
Any parent can tell you about the baby who cries as soon as he is put into a cradle,
but keeps quiet once in your arms. The question this poses is: are babies really
distressed, or are they using deception to get you to pick them up? During early
children may be aware of something in their nappy, but will deny it if you ask: they
have learned that messing in their nappy isn’t socially acceptable.
Many mums have arrived home after a playdate to find their child has hidden a small
toy in their handbag or their own clothing. Another common deception is when kids
deny they ate something. Your child’s face may be covered in blue icing, but when
asked if he took a cupcake he will deny it vehemently, or put the blame on the dog.
Unsurprisingly, the dog has no blue icing on his face!
Is it a sign of intelligence?
Professor of Developmental and Cultural Psychology at the University of Portsmouth,
Vasudevi Reddy, believes so. She points out that, to be able to deceive, children
have to be able to
understand other people’s motives. This allows them to predict possible outcomes
for an event and take action to avoid those outcomes.
For example, if a close friend breaks something by accident and they know this might
make someone angry, they understand instinctively that telling the truth could get
the friend into trouble
– so they invent a story to cover the breakage.
Dr Hoika agrees that deception may reflect a higher level of intelligence: ‘In a
recent study, we found that children with higher verbal working memories were better
at covering up their lies.
Verbal working memory is helpful for things like reading and numbers, so good deceptive
abilities might suggest that kids are also better at these other skills.’
A key question raised when it comes to why children learn to deceive at such a young
age is: are we teaching them to lie by modelling deception? Although we deceive children
in many ways, deception isn’t always negative.
HOW CHILDREN DECEIVE
BABIES UP TO 2 YEARS
Covering up mistakes (like smearing the peanut butter into the couch cushions in
an attempt to hide it, or getting the dog to lick up spilt milk).
Hiding the evidence of something they broke or took.
Placing blame on others to save themselves.
Inventing stories about other toddlers who ‘hurt’ them.
Hiding to make their parents worry.
Claiming they don’t know where something is that they have hidden.
Inventing stories to protect someone they like.
Defiance, such as ‘I don’t care’ when clearly they do.
Inflating the truth to make those they love look good.
Cheating in games in order to gain advantage.
Not telling if a sibling/friend did something wrong to prevent them getting into
We often tell little white lies in an effort to make children’s lives more magical.
If they knew that parents put the money under their pillows for those first tiny
teeth, it would spoil the excitement of waiting for the tooth fairy to arrive. And
parents who leave tiny notes in minute handwriting, signed with fairy dust, are engaging
their children in a wonderful world of make believe and feeding their creativity.
Not all deception is negative.
Dr Hoika says: ‘Philosophers have been debating this question for centuries. Traditionalists
suggest that lying is always wrong, even if it is about Santa Claus. The problem
is that lying might affect trust in others, as well as undermining the purpose of
communication in general:to get accurate information.
‘On the other hand, if someone gives you a present that you hate, and you say you
like it, you will spare their feelings and make them feel good, which could be seen
as morally positive.’ Often, an older child who discovers that Santa isn’t real is
asked to keep the secret so as not to ruin Christmas for younger siblings. This brings
us to keeping secrets – when is it healthy, and when can keeping secrets pose a problem,
or be a sign that something more worrying is going on.
HOW PARENTS DECEIVE
‘The chocolate/ice-cream/sweets are finished.’
‘I’m going to take you home right now if you don’t behave.’
‘You can’t come with me because I’m going to work.’
‘Santa won’t bring you presents if you don’t behave.’
‘I don’t have any money so I can’t buy you that.’
Although not all deception is negative, researchers have found that
children do learn from their parents how to deceive. So be selective with your lies:
ask yourself if the deception benefits your child, or if it is simply a lie.
Secrets and lies
As parents, you need to have a close relationship with your children so they are
confident to talk to you about ‘secrets’ that are causing them distress. They need
to know that you won’t
explode, but will talk through the situation in a reasonable manner. If you suspect
that your child is keeping unhealthy secrets, consider taking him to a counsellor
– they know just how to help children open up and will be able to get to the bottom
You should worry about secrets when:
Children initiate conversations and then change their mind.
They seem worried around a particular person.
They attempt to distract you when you go to a certain area –
something is concealed.
They ask about punishment – they are weighing up the risk of
telling the truth.
They have toys or sweets you didn’t give them.
Sudden mood swings and withdrawal.
‘In general, research on early deception suggests it’s normal, typical behaviour,
and parents shouldn’t be concerned if their kids try out lying,’ concludes Dr Hoika.
‘If your child never tries to lie,
that might be more worrying!’
Lying may be normal, but it doesn’t mean you want your child to lie all the time.
‘You still have to consider the moral implications of how your child is interacting
with the world,’ says Dr Hoika. Teaching children the difference between ‘acceptable’
fibs (such as saving someone’s feelings) and downright lying for self-good will
always be a challenge for parents.
What a whopper!
Two readers share their experiences of the consequences of lying.
Lisa is grandmother to Amy (five) and Liam (three).
‘The children had been warned to stay away from their father’s
generator – which they didn’t. In seconds, Liam had managed to cut right through
the tendons on two of his fingers and was rushed off to hospital. Asked what had
happened, both children said it was a big stick they were playing with that caused
it – an obvious lie, but they stuck to their story. Three days later, Amy admitted
they had screwed off a covering on the generator and Liam had cut his fingers on
the sharp metal inside. He was fortunate the generator wasn’t on.”
Pauline is mum to two-and-a-half year old Joshua.
‘Joshua kept telling me at bedtime that he had a bad toe. I became
really worried – until I twigged that he was running around all day,
everyday, yet his toe suddenly became painful at dead on 7pm. Very convenient!’