Who Teaches Kids To Lie?

Everyone knows that kids lie. They lie for all the same reasons that adults lie: to avoid trouble, gain an advantage, or increase their happiness. But why do kids lie? Po Bonson used some recently published research to answer that question in a recent edition of New York Magazine.

Much of the article was devoted to establishing the problem.

Out of the 36 topics, the average teen was lying to his parents about twelve of them. The teens lied about what they spent their allowances on, and whether they’d started dating, and what clothes they put on away from the house. They lied about what movie they went to, and whom they went with. They lied about alcohol and drug use, and they lied about whether they were hanging out with friends their parents disapproved of. They lied about how they spent their afternoons while their parents were at work. They lied about whether chaperones were in attendance at a party or whether they rode in cars driven by drunken teens.

This in spite of the fact that…

For two decades, parents have rated “honesty” as the trait they most wanted in their children. Other traits, such as confidence or good judgment, don’t even come close. On paper, the kids are getting this message. In surveys, 98 percent said that trust and honesty were essential in a personal relationship. Depending on their ages, 96 to 98 percent said lying is morally wrong.

So when do the 98 percent who think lying is wrong become the 98 percent who lie?

Here is how they tested younger kids…

One of Talwar’s experiments, a variation on a classic experiment called the temptation-resistance paradigm, is known in the lab as “the Peeking Game.” Through a hidden camera, I’d watched Nick play it with another one of Talwar’s students, Cindy Arruda. She told Nick they were going to play a guessing game. Nick was to sit facing the wall and try to guess the identity of a toy Arruda brought out, based on the sound it made. If he was right three times, he’d win a prize.

The first two were easy: a police car and a crying baby doll. Nick bounced in his chair with excitement when he got the answers right. Then Arruda brought out a soft, stuffed soccer ball and placed it on top of a greeting card that played music. She cracked the card, triggering it to play a music-box jingle of Beethoven’s Für Elise. Nick, of course, was stumped.

Arruda suddenly said she had to leave the room for a bit, promising to be right back. She admonished Nick not to peek at the toy while she was gone. Nick struggled not to, but at thirteen seconds, he gave in and looked.

When Arruda returned, she could barely come through the door before Nick—facing the wall again—triumphantly announced, “A soccer ball!” Arruda told Nick to wait for her to get seated. Suddenly realizing he should sound unsure of his answer, he hesitantly asked, “A soccer ball?”

Arruda said Nick was right, and when he turned to face her, he acted very pleased. Arruda asked Nick if he had peeked. “No,” he said quickly. Then a big smile spread across his face.

Without challenging him, or even a note of suspicion in her voice, Arruda asked Nick how he’d figured out the sound came from a soccer ball.

Nick cupped his chin in his hands, then said, “The music had sounded like a ball.” Then: “The ball sounded black and white.” Nick added that the music sounded like the soccer balls he played with at school: They squeaked. And the music sounded like the squeak he heard when he kicked a ball. To emphasize this, his winning point, he brushed his hand against the side of the toy ball.

Now where do kids learn to lie like that? From their parents.

The most disturbing reason children lie is that parents teach them to. According to Talwar, they learn it from us. “We don’t explicitly tell them to lie, but they see us do it. They see us tell the telemarketer, ‘I’m just a guest here.’ They see us boast and lie to smooth social relationships.”

Consider how we expect a child to act when he opens a gift he doesn’t like. We instruct him to swallow all his honest reactions and put on a polite smile. Talwar runs an experiment where children play games to win a present, but when they finally receive the present, it’s a lousy bar of soap. After giving the kids a moment to overcome the shock, a researcher asks them how they like it. About a quarter of preschoolers can lie that they like the gift—by elementary school, about half. Telling this lie makes them extremely uncomfortable, especially when pressed to offer a few reasons why they like the bar of soap. Kids who shouted with glee when they won the Peeking Game suddenly mumble quietly and fidget.

Meanwhile, the child’s parent usually cheers when the child comes up with the white lie. “Often, the parents are proud that their kids are ‘polite’—they don’t see it as lying,” Talwar remarks. She’s regularly amazed at parents’ seeming inability to recognize that white lies are still lies.

This acceptance leads to…

Encouraged to tell so many white lies and hearing so many others, children gradually get comfortable with being disingenuous. Insincerity becomes, literally, a daily occurrence. They learn that honesty only creates conflict, and dishonesty is an easy way to avoid conflict. And while they don’t confuse white-lie situations with lying to cover their misdeeds, they bring this emotional groundwork from one circumstance to the other. It becomes easier, psychologically, to lie to a parent. So if the parent says, “Where did you get these Pokémon cards?! I told you, you’re not allowed to waste your allowance on Pokémon cards!” this may feel to the child very much like a white-lie scenario—he can make his father feel better by telling him the cards were extras from a friend.

Kids expose their parents. At least mine do. On numerous occasions I’ve gotten frustrated with my kids’ sarcasm or pride or irresponsibility only to recognize that they’ve learned their behavior from me. I’m guilty of the same things they are. Now I’m not trying to let kids off the hook. Just like adults, kids are personally responsible for their words and actions and they are not exempt from being morally accountable to God. But that doesn’t lessen our parental responsibility to set a godly example. God has designed the parent/child relationship so that parents have incredible influence in the lives of their kids. But will that influence be negative or positive? That’s the question that we all have to wrestle with.

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