The art of deception



There’s a good reason

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 involves

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 potty training,

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.








Fake crying.


Fake injuries/pain.


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 trouble.


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.






‘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 of things.


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!’






March/April 2016

All information is correct at time of publishing