Caught in a lie
Is lying just another sign that my teen is learning? Tracey Hawthorne has hope.

The truth will out, the old saying goes, and my 18-year-old daughter learnt this to her detriment some time ago when a slip of the tongue revealed a substantial lie she’d told me. Interestingly, I’d been suspicious about the story she’d woven, but short of snooping into her private affairs, I’d had no choice but to take what she’d said at face value.

I’ve always been big on the importance of my children telling the truth, so this incident disturbed me. But I’ve subsequently done some research that has taught me some fascinating things.

First, and for me most interesting, is that lying is a sign of intelligence in children. Research conducted by the Institute of Child Study at Toronto University revealed that almost all children lie: by the tender age of 4, most (90%) kids can lie their pants off, and this increases with age, reaching a peak by – surprise! – 12.

Lying, says the director of the institute, Dr Kang Lee, is 'a sign that [children] have reached a new developmental milestone. Those who have better cognitive development lie because they can cover up their tracks'.

This is confirmed by Dr Victoria Talwar, a developmental researcher at McGill University in Montreal. ‘Although we think of truthfulness as a young child’s paramount virtue, it turns out that lying is the more advanced skill,’ she says. This is because lying requires the ability to carry out a complex juggling act – a child who lies must recognise the truth, create an alternate reality, and then convincingly sell that alternate reality to someone else.

Another study, this one conducted by London’s Science Museum, revealed that adults lie – a lot. Men lie about 3 times a day, women twice. And people are more than twice as likely to lie to their mother as they are to their partner. ‘Lying … is an important part of social interaction,’ says Katie Maggs, associate medical curator at the museum.

When it comes to teens, ‘hiding information, concealing behaviour and evading open discussion are ways [they] create separate space for themselves,’ says Johannesburg-based psychologist Judith Ancer (writing in the Sunday Times, 6 June 2010). ‘Lying also covers up experimentation that parents may not approve of. Ironically, it may be those teens who tell their parents everything who are not grappling with some of the psychological tasks of growing up, as they are not establishing a separate identity.’

So, for we parents who’re involved in the delicate balancing act of bringing up happy, productive, compassionate children, here’s another spinning plate to add to our parental apparatus: we want, as Ancer puts it, ‘a kid who has an intact survival instinct and will sometimes try to lie to get out of trouble but is, in fact, a relatively poor liar so he can’t get away with it too easily.’

Do you expect your kids to lie to you?

Read more by Tracey Hawthorne

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