How kids fool their parents

holding my breath until I turn invisible by qwrrty / Tim Pierce

http://www.flickr.com/photos/qwrrty/ / CC BY 2.0

Let’s face it: kids tell lies. Sometimes it’s because they fear the consequences if they tell the truth, at other times, it may be to avoid an unpleasant task. There can be many reasons for it, but the bottom line is, if you’re a parent, chances are you’ve been lied to at some point by your child. It’s not a pleasant thing to think about, and it’s made less so by the fact that many kids quickly become very good liars. So what can parents do?

First, as Dr. Giuseppe wrote yesterday, youth are aware of some of the behaviours that might be clues to deception, and they’re often able to avoid these hints. A study by Strömwall and his colleagues in 2007 attempted to determine whether 11 to 13-year olds who had time to prepare a story would be better liars than those who were put on the spot. The prepared liars were quite convincing; adults were generally unable to tell whether or not their stories were true. However, even if they didn’t have time to prepare a convincing lie, the participants were often able to fool the adults who questioned them. Why were pre-teens so good at deceit? They said that they used a number of strategies to make their lies sound true; they based their stories on things they had experienced or heard from others, and made a conscious effort to stay calm (nervousness was a factor that betrayed unprepared liars more often than the prepared ones). Adults tended to look to the amount of details in the stories to detect whether or not they were true – the kids’ method of using true events as a foundation for their fibs was therefore particularly helpful. In fact, the research results indicated that the pre-teens were as good at lying as adults!

These findings, which have been duplicated in other studies, should be alarming for parents – by the time a child is 11 years old, the parents’ odds of detecting their fibs are only about 50-50! In other words, half the time you try to catch a child in a lie, you’ll be wrong. At this point, dear reader, you’re probably saying to yourself, “I know my child better than that! I can tell when they aren’t telling the truth!” The fact is, even if you have a better than 50-50 lie detection rate, you’re still going to be wrong some of the time. Although the occasional lie can damage the trust between a parent and a child, an adult can assign a consequence, remind him- or herself that infrequent lies are a normal part of growing up, and return to the typical routine. It’s likely to be more difficult for a child who is incorrectly accused of lying to recover as quickly, and if your child feels that he or she has been labelled as a liar, it may reduce the motivation to tell the truth.

Research conducted in Victoria Talwar’s lab suggests that parents may be able to prevent lying by emphasizing the importance of telling the truth as well as the consequences of lying. Hearing The Boy Who Cried Wolf didn’t reduce lying by kids who participated in Dr. Talwar’s study. A story about a child who confessed to a negative act and was rewarded for telling the truth had a significant impact; children were more likely to be honest. Kids need to hear not only that lying is bad, but that the truth is good. Role modelling is also essential – a child who hears you lie about his age to get a cheaper movie ticket may come to see lying as acceptable. Stealing cable, illegally downloading music, lying about being sick to stay home from work … all of these behaviours send a message about your acceptance of lying.

If lying becomes commonplace for your child, it may suggest that a greater problem is at work. Parents may need to seek professional help to investigate how the behaviour is maintained. Family therapy may be particularly helpful, as it encourages everyone in the home to work together.

You can read Strömwall’s study here.

More information about Victoria Talwar’s work can be found here.

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