The Psychology of Childhood Deception: Understanding Why Children Lie

Lying is a universal human behaviour, and children are no exception. From innocent fibs about finishing their vegetables to more serious deceptions about their weekend whereabouts, children often resort to lying for various reasons. Now, I am not suggesting for one moment that all children are intentionally deceptive individuals, or that they are maliciously trying to pull the wool over our eyes. Lying is, in fact, a fairly normal part of the development phase in adolescents and, as a behaviour, it can reoccur at different phases of childhood. It is a fascinating element of human behaviour and cognitive development and one that, if better understood, can help us to navigate the real issues that children face, which might otherwise be lost under the guise of something else.

Understanding Childhood Deception:

To understand why children lie, it’s crucial to examine the underlying motives driving their deceptive behaviour. While the reasons may vary from one child to another, several common factors contribute to the prevalence of lying among children.

  1. Fear of Punishment: One of the primary reasons children lie to their parents is the fear of punishment. When faced with the prospect of being reprimanded or disciplined for their actions, children may resort to lying as a means of avoiding consequences. For example, a child who accidentally breaks a valuable item may deny their involvement out of fear of facing parental anger or punishment. When I was 5 I got into a lot of trouble for inscribing my name into a wooden chest that my parents kept vinyl records in, with a biro. I am told, although I don’t remember, that at the time I tried to blame my brother for this act of vandalism. What I did not appreciate, at the tender age of 5, was that my 2 year old brother did not have the dexterity to hold a pen properly let alone correctly spell my name. In fact he called my Betty until he was at least 4 as he struggled to pronounce a hard ‘ck’ sound of ‘Rebecca’ or ‘Becky’. I was, of course, found out!
  2. Desire for Approval: Children crave acceptance and validation from their parents, and lying may sometimes be a misguided attempt to seek approval. Whether it’s exaggerating their achievements or fabricating stories to impress their parents, children may resort to lying in pursuit of parental praise and attention. In the same way, children may lie, or perhaps exaggerate the truth, in order to gain a more sympathetic ear from their parents when they have suffered pain in some way, either physically or emotionally.
  3. Protection of Privacy: As children grow older and assert their independence, they may begin to value their privacy and autonomy much more. Lying about their activities or whereabouts may be a way for children to maintain a sense of privacy and control over their lives, particularly in adolescence when the desire for autonomy is heightened as part of the detachment process. As children become teenagers, they begin to subconsciously detach from their parents, in readiness for independence. In doing so, they often experience a deep desire to maintain elements of secrecy about themselves. They may well experience embarrassment when certain elements of their lives are exposed and will go to some lengths to prevent this happening. This presents a tricky path for parents to tread as they must walk the fine line of allowing their child time and space to develop in this way, but must also do what is necessary to keep them safe. The line itself is so fine, that it is almost impossible to avoid stepping too far one way or the other. In most circumstances, to play it safe, parents will trespass too far over the boundaries of privacy, as the alternative could have much more serious and significant consequences.
  4. Avoidance of Shame or Embarrassment: Children, like adults, experience emotions such as shame and embarrassment, which they may seek to avoid by lying. For instance, a child who feels ashamed of a poor performance at school may fabricate stories about their academic achievements to preserve their self-esteem and avoid feelings of inadequacy. Alternatively, they may design excuses which might explain away a poor result and remove their responsibility in the situation. Equally, shame felt over getting into trouble for poor behaviour may be a cause for children to be economic with the truth. Embarrassment can also cause a sense of anger, which often causes children to seek someone to blame and may lead to a deception in order to shift blame and focus to another individual. Children may feel shame or embarrassment for something they have done and so lie or exaggerate to cover it up. A classic example of this is exaggerating how much something has hurt them, perhaps when they fall over, in order to offer a reasonable explanation for their tears.
  5. Experimentation and Exploration: Lying can also be a natural part of childhood experimentation and exploration. As children navigate the complexities of social interactions and relationships, they may test the boundaries of honesty to see how others react. This experimentation with truth-telling versus lying is a normal aspect of cognitive and social development. It often happens during early childhood and can result in some pretty hilarious conversations with toddlers. My nephew recently told his pre-school supervisor that he is in charge at home and his family take all their instructions from him! Lies of this nature are often very creative and may include elements of absolute fantasy.
  6. Lying by omission: This is incredibly common in children, teenagers and adults. As humans we often struggle to admit wrongdoing or admit that we make mistakes. As such, in school scenarios, where a fall out has occurred, it is rarely one sided and even more rarely, clear cut. Children will often talk to their parents about an incident in school where they have fallen out with a friend, or perhaps with a teacher. The story is often told in favour of the story teller in that instance, and rarely includes the full truth of the part that they have played. For example, a child comes home and tells their parents that their teacher was horrible to them today and shouted at them in front of all their friends because the teacher, ‘hates [me]!’. They omit the part about them talking consistently in the lesson and disrupting others, they omit the part where they were late because they decided the end of break was the correct time to fill up their water bottle, and they omit the fact that they did not complete the classwork to a satisfactory standard or complete their prep from the week before. They are upset that they were called out on their behaviour and embarrassed that their peers witnessed this. The result may be a version of the truth but is not the full story.

The Normality of Lying in Child Development:

While lying is often perceived as morally wrong, it is important to recognise that it is a normative behaviour in child development. Research in developmental psychology suggests that lying serves adaptive functions and plays a crucial role in children’s socioemotional development.

According to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, children progress through distinct stages of moral reasoning, with lying emerging as a natural consequence of cognitive growth. In the early stages of development, children operate under a strict adherence to rules and authority figures, leading to a black-and-white view of morality. Children will often view a lie as a crime, and can be brutally honest in their communications. As children mature and develop a more nuanced understanding of social norms and moral principles, they begin to recognize the complexities of honesty and deception. Piaget recognised the significance of lying more generally for children’s moral development, identifying it as a significant issue if it is not addressed with children at an early enough stage, but also that it does form a normal part of the development process.

Furthermore, studies in neuroscience have shed light on the brain mechanisms underlying deceptive behaviour in children. Studies have shown that areas of the brain associated with cognitive control and inhibitory processes are activated when children engage in deception. These findings suggest that lying requires cognitive effort and involves the deliberate suppression of truthful responses. In essence, it requires creativity, and a level of social understanding where they can recognise that different opinions might be a play, and therefore they are able to offer an alternative to the truth that might be believed.

Moreover, research has demonstrated that lying can be a marker of cognitive development and social intelligence in children. In a study published in the journal Child Development (Peterson, et al, 1983), researchers found that children who were more adept at lying demonstrated higher levels of theory of mind—the ability to understand others’ thoughts, beliefs, and intentions. This suggests that lying may serve as a proxy measure of children’s social cognitive abilities and their understanding of others’ perspectives.

The Lies we tell:

It is also important to recognise that adults also tell lies. We do so for a number of reasons and a number of the lies we tell are directed at children. Why do we do this? There are several reasons for adult deception, and we see evidence of this in the media almost daily, but two of the most legitimate reasons for lying to children specifically might well be to protect and to create a sense of fun and wonder for our little ones.

For example, when considering protection, we might over exaggerate the dangers of something to ensure we put our children off doing it. Telling a child that if they steal biscuits out of the tin, the cookie monster will come and take them away. This is, of course, a lie but it might be viewed as serving a greater purpose in teaching the child about the rights and wrongs of ‘taking without asking’.

Similarly, we might lie to protect a child’s feelings. When your 6 year old comes home from school with a less than flattering family portrait that they have spent all afternoon working on in their art lesson, do you berate them for insulting the size of your head or giving you a purple bulbous nose? Of course not! That masterpiece is going straight on the fridge! Adult to adult, we behave similarly. The age old question of, ‘Does this dress make me look thinner?’ needs answering with tact and care. Answering, ‘It’s not a magic dress darling!’ probably won’t win you any brownie points with your significant other and could lead to an uncomfortable silence for the rest of the evening.

In terms of creating a sense of fun or wonder, do we even need to talk about Father Christmas, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter bunny? You probably get my point well enough without further need for elaboration. If you are reading this aloud in the presence of small children, apologies for any subsequent uncomfortable questions coming your way!

So, the phenomenon of childhood lying is multifaceted, influenced by a range of psychological, social, and cognitive factors. From fear of punishment to the desire for approval, children may resort to lying for various reasons, particularly in interactions with their parents. However, it is essential to recognize that lying is a normal aspect of child development, serving adaptive functions and reflecting children’s growing understanding of social norms and moral principles. By understanding the underlying motives driving childhood deception and the developmental significance of lying, parents, caregivers and educators can foster open communication and cultivate honesty in their children. Understanding some of the reasons behind childhood deceptive behaviours can also help parents to navigate the school years more effectively, supporting where needed and recognising that what is said is not always the full story. If we can unpick this with children and teens, we can start to help them to resolve the real issues that may be at the source of the lie and improve their overall wellbeing as a result. I am not suggesting for one second that we should not believe children when they tell us something is wrong. This in itself would be fundamentally unhelpful, and even potentially harmful, to the situation. However we should recognise that there could be more to the story.

Miss Kneen
Deputy Head Pastoral