"Did you just hurt Zuma?" I sternly asked my four year old.
"No, she just made that noise and ran away," he replied.
It was a bald-faced lie. He didn't know I'd been standing behind. What he did know, however, is that I'm protective of the dog. I get angry when he hurts her, and I've yelled at him before for being rough with her.
Obviously I don't love the addition of lying to an already maddening habit of taunting and hurting the dog. But could there be good news in there somewhere? I think so.
Theory of Mind
Around the age of three, preschoolers start to recognize other people have unique experiences and thoughts which are separate from their own. This is an important life skill called “theory of mind.” When children develop theory of mind, they begin to recognize their own inner workings as different than those of others. This insight is what allows them to lie.
However, theory of mind isn’t an inherently negative trait. Once children develop theory of mind, they begin to learn how to consider the perspective of another person. When my four year old hurts the dog's face, he is now able to engage in a discussion about what that might have felt like for the dog. He can recognize how his actions affect someone else and how it feels to be treated a certain way. If this sounds like empathy, it’s because it is.
As authors Dr. Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz explain in Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered, “Once a child reaches this stage, he knows that others think different thoughts and see the world through different eyes - but also that these perspectives can often be predicted by imagining ‘what it would be like for me.’ Learning to lie helps you consider things from someone else’s point of view...If you can’t do this at all, you can’t empathize, but you also can’t lie effectively."
Unfortunately we simply can’t have one without the other. We might be morally opposed to lying, as we should be, but we can also see it as a milestone on the path to raising an empathic, compassionate child.
Why Children Lie
Children also lie to avoid punishment. If a child knows he will be shamed or spanked as a result of a behavior, he is more likely to lie to cover his own behind, literally.
Some children lie simply because the line between fantasy and reality remains slightly blurred. Children with vivid imaginations tend to lie about benign facts, and often they begin to believe their own tales. These aren’t intentional lies, simply ones born from a colorful inner world.
What to Do When Your Child Lies
Had I used an inquisitive tone rather than an accusatory one, he probably would have felt safe talking to me about what happened and collaborating with me to solve the problem. When we create an environment where it is safe to be honest, and in fact where we vocalize our strong preference for it despite the situation, our children are more inclined to tell the truth. This means avoiding punishments like spanking shaming, and timeouts even when boundaries and consequences are necessary and appropriate (for example, keeping a young boy and the family dog separated unless supervised).
Theory of mind, and the capacity it gives us to take the perspective of others, is an exciting milestone in any child’s development. And with it comes the ability to lie. While our children are apt to experiment with this new skill, we can avoid seeing a catastrophe where none exists and instead celebrate their heightened capacity to empathize with others.