Learning to lie: Early forays


Some time ago, I was visiting a family with small children, and I found the two-year-old middle child with a marker in her hand suspiciously close to some fresh marks on the living room couch. The following conversation ensued:

"Who drew on the couch?"

My older sister.

"Your older sister isn't home."

The baby.

"The baby can't reach this."

The dog.

"You don't have a dog."

Comments (25)
  1. Anonymous says:

    (Note: the following is said as a non-parent. Probably once I’m actually a parent, my perspective will change.)

    This is the kind of thing that tells me to teach my kids that lying about what happened will get them a tougher punishment than confessing immediately. I’d rather my kid told me "yeah, I stayed up playing video games the night before the test instead of studying" than "yeah, Dad, I tried my hardest, I just didn’t understand the material" only to find their grades shoot up once I set their computer to turn off at 7 PM every night.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I agree with Adam and I am a parent of a 7 year-old.

    It doesn’t take a kid long to figure out that hiding a mistake might bring no punishment and telling of it likely will. The only way to have a chance is to show some compassion when she takes responsibility and be harsher when she lies.

    On a side note: never tell your kids how you know they are lying. It only makes them better liars.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Maybe the parents called the living room the “drawing room”?

    [Good one. -Raymond]
  4. Anonymous says:

    When she was about 5 my younger sister scribbled on the wall and blamed it on my brother who was 2 at the time. Only problem was, she wrote her name on the wall.

  5. asymtote says:

    2 years old is on the young side to start lying (especially if the child has only just turned 2) but it’s in the ballpark.

    What’s interesting to me is that she wasn’t attempting to make the lie believable. Lying actually requires more advanced cognitive skills than simply telling the truth. You have to be able to recognize the truth of a situation, formulate a believable alternative explanation that will have the desired outcome and then sell that alternative to other people. It seems like this particular person had the idea of lying figured out but was pretty unsophisticated in its application. I’m sure if you visit again in 6 months or so you’ll see a marked improvement :-).

    [As I recall, she was at the time on the high side of 2 years old. And I too was fascinated by the cognitive development aspect of lying. If she had been caught in a similar predicament as an early 2, she probably would have walked away without making eye contact (disengagement). -Raymond]
  6. Anonymous says:

    If you take this out of a truth/lie rramework i can be seen as creativity,  thinking outside the box.  Give the child a job in a software development environment…

  7. Anonymous says:

    You don’t have kids, do you Raymond?  <g>

  8. Anonymous says:

    Maybe she wanted to say with this incident that *this* would be a good reason to get a dog? ;-)

  9. Obvious response:

    "Well, Mom, it looks like we’ve eliminated pretty much everyone else… is there something you want to tell me?"

    Or perhaps the A. A. Milne-esque…

    "… I thought at the time," said Rabbit, "only I didn’t like to say anything," said Rabbit, "that one of us was eating too much.  And I knew it wasn’t /me/." — Winnie the Pooh

  10. Anonymous says:

    I don’t know how representative my 4yo+1mo son is but I’d say that it was well over a year from starting to lie to being even remotely believable. He’s doing ok now though.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Once you’ve run out of all the earthly scapegoats in your neighbourhood you can then start blaming god, the devil, space aliens etc.

  12. epictetus13 says:

    S/he just playing with you, playing with language, and experimenting. Kids this age have little or no moral code as we understand that, and are usually incapable of lying, as we define lying. Could be some imitation of what is observed from the older child(ren). Now what might have been fun is if you said, pointing to the couch, "Who drew on the dog?" – "itsa couch…" "No, who drew on the dog?" – "itsa couch, I know, because I drew on it."

  13. Anonymous says:

    On a side note: never tell your kids how you know they are lying. It only makes them better liars.

    I’d only partially agree on this one.

    It does seems that lying is inevitable for most people. So either teach them to not lie at all, or teach them to at least know when to lie and when to tell the truth… and how to tell lies without being caught. And the rule of thumb in "Never tell lies that you’d not be able to deal with later".

    I’d agree that it’s sad that the second way is usually the best way (for the child) to go.

  14. Anonymous says:

    A *two*-year-old?  That’s disturbing.  My two-year-old would’ve brightly said, "I did!"  This isn’t to say that I’m a better parent; I just wonder what happens in a two-year-old’s brain to cause lying to be an option.  I didn’t think two-year-olds were that sophisticated.

  15. Adding to what epictetus13 said:  I recall from many years ago when I was a psychology major learning that children that young can say things that are not factually true, but it is not lying in the sense of an immoral desire to deceive.  More often, the child is merely saying what he/she WISHES were the truth.  With my young children, I was always very careful not to characterize what they were doing as "lying" or (especially) to call them "liars" or condemn them, but at the same time encouraging them to speak truthfully.  As they get older (e.g., four or five), the topic of trust becomes more important, and the consequences for lying start really kicking in.

  16. Anonymous says:

    We teach kids to lie all the time. We call it ‘pretending’ or ‘playing’ or having fun. We lie about Santa and where kids come from and about consequences. We lie that spinach and green beans make you strong, that band aids make things better.

    When a two year old goes into pretend mode and playing, this is just the life of a two year old. The bigger question is you. Why did you even ask the question?

  17. CmraLvr2 says:

    My youngest daughter drew all over my in-laws brand new leather couch with a sharpie when she was three.  It’s like a disease.  They know it’s wrong and they will be punished but they still cannot help but do it.  Marking device abstinence was the only absolute solution.  Pens, markers, paint etc all got locked up with controlled and supervised access.  I thought they’d never outgrow it.  They have now…woohoo! :D

  18. Anonymous says:

    (Disclaimer: I’m not a parent, but I know several, and I’ve been a kid, obviously.)

    If I had been the parent of that kid, I would have given it two beatings instead of the usual one. One for the act, and a harsher one for trying to deceive me. The difference between a lie and something you wish were true is splitting hairs. Think about it, you could easily say the same thing about an adult liar in most cases.

    That said, don’t assume kids are lying too easily. My parents were especially good at jumping to conclusions, which is why I still (even though I’ve left the nest for decades) habitually lie to them. Not to deceive them per se, but because I’ve learned over time what kind of statements make them behave decently (towards me and others) and these are often not truths. And no, I have not become an exceptionally good liar as a result. My parents may not have a knack for detecting truth, but that works both ways.

  19. Anonymous says:

    We teach kids to lie all the time. We call it ‘pretending’ or ‘playing’ or having fun. We lie about Santa and where kids come from and about consequences. We lie that spinach and green beans make you strong, that band aids make things better.

    When a two year old goes into pretend mode and playing, this is just the life of a two year old. The bigger question is you. Why did you even ask the question?

  20. Anonymous says:

    Washable Crayons.  Lifesavers, they.  Of course, I still try to teach my daughter not to write on furniture or walls, but she’s not even quite 2 yet.

  21. Anonymous says:

    JayD, a lot of these lies are unnecessary. When I was a kid Santa was introduced as a myth (three myths in fact, and some adult – a teacher? I can’t remember – even told me how they were related which I thought was pretty cool) and the stork story I first encountered in that Disney film when I was old enough to have an inkling of what was really going on. Spinach is actually pretty good for you, as are vegetables in general. Not that you need to coax kids into eating things if you’re a decent cook, and if they really dislike something you don’t need to force it down their throats. Would you have liked it if your parents would have done that? I’m certainly happy that there were one or two things I didn’t need to eat. If band aids are not necessary, just tell the kid how to take care of the wound and that it will cure by itself. When I was a kid I got little cuts and bruises all the time.

    Why did you even ask the question?

    Maybe it popped in his head before he had parsed the situation. Or maybe it was rhetorical. Who cares. No one, and especially not an adult, should have to justify asking a question ever.

  22. Anonymous says:

    George Costanza: "It’s not a lie if you believe it."

  23. Anonymous says:

    That kid has "investment banker" written all over her. :-)

  24. Anonymous says:

    Once you’ve run out of all the earthly scapegoats in your neighbourhood you can then start blaming god, the devil, space aliens etc.

    That’s what grownups use.. A LOT of the time..

  25. Anonymous says:

    Actually, lying is a sign of cognitive development and requires theory-of-mind (i.e. the concept that someone doesn’t know what you know.)  The two year old was quite advanced for her age.

    I know because my oldest was unable to lie until about age 10 and as parent we received much praise for it :-(.  However, by the time he understood the theory and became able to lie, he was also able to grasp that there were some real advantages to having a reputation for honesty.  Throughout his elementary school career, if teachers wanted to know what ‘really’ happened (albeit filtered through his slightly odd worldview), they asked him.

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