Regardless of how conscious or contrived our lying is, all of us lie. In general, however, we lie only in situations where it seems a better choice than simply telling the truth. Also, in most scenarios, lying can’t be categorically dismissed as immoral. For its practice is far more complicated.

Whether mindful or mindless, everyday examples of lying cover as many existential areas as might be imagined. And, depending on your life circumstances, particular instances of this well-nigh universal tendency may relate sharply, or only dimly, to you.

Consider some fairly common examples frequently cited in the abundant literature on this perennially controversial subject:

“He (she) started it!” Since the child fears telling the truth will virtually guarantee being punished, they disavow any responsibility for hitting their sibling first.

“But mom said I could!” They appeal to their dad, despite never even having approached their mom or asking her permission under their breath while she nodded, too busy preparing dinner to take in what they said—or maybe replied that it was up to their father.

“If you let me ________ [fill in the blank for your own child, or maybe you when you were younger], I’ll never ask for anything again.” Right, sure, but could any child really think such a promise was sustainable?

“I’m just too sick to go to school today.” But in reality, could the child want to avoid being caught not having done their homework, or might they be bullied by a classmate but too humiliated to tell their parents, and so on?

“Cracking your knuckles like that will eventually make them break.” When the truth is that this habit won’t hurt the child, even though the parent finds it extremely irritating.

“If you keep crossing your eyes, they’ll get stuck that way, and no one will want to be your friend.” That is scary, but no evidence supports it.

“When you sit so close to the TV, you’re damaging your eyes.” Maybe back in the ’50s when TVs emitted excessive radiation, but not today.

“Santa’s watching everything you do, so don’t think you can continue your shenanigans and still get Christmas presents.” Especially with a very young child, this threat could frighten them—but, unfortunately, make them more anxious than virtuous.

As children grow older, their lying becomes more “knowing,” more sophisticated. And their reasons for lying become more varied, increasingly similar to their parents, who (though inadvertently) serve as primary models.

Until they approach age 4, they generally haven’t yet developed a theory of mind, meaning that they assume their parents will take whatever they say literally. The notion that their caregiver’s perspective may—and probably will—differ substantially from theirs hasn’t yet entered their unsuspecting mind.

Additionally, their thinking is vastly more egocentric than most adults. And focusing almost exclusively on personal goals, aspirations, rewards, and punishments, they’re pretty much oblivious to others’ reactions.

If their grandmother buys them a gift they dislike, they’ll artlessly broadcast their aversion to it, unaware that their curt admission is likely to hurt Grandma’s feelings.

In short, they can’t conceptualize the nature or value of “white lies” and how they can be intentionally and diplomatically employed to protect not their emotional welfare but another’s.

On the contrary, they make bad, incompetent liars because they’re ignorant of which elocutions, times, and places are appropriate to lie “successfully.” Nor do they realize the importance of hiding their true feelings by covering their tracks.

As children get older, their lying becomes more and more similar to their parents, as a result of repeatedly getting trapped by their prevarications and their parents’ teaching them about honesty (ordinarily) being the best policy.

And ironically, becoming much more cognizant of their parents’ lying behaviors, their own duplicity becomes more accomplished. It’s as though this skill (if it can rightfully be called that) has matured, making it roughly equivalent to that of their all-too-often hypocritical caregivers.

Nevertheless, experts have come to identify lying as a vital step in a child's development. It demonstrates that they’re learning how their minds are separate from their parents, that to be totally true to themselves, they sometimes need to be false, or contrary, to their caretakers.

And similar to a child’s saying "no," it’s important to their evolution to start affirming their boundaries (i.e., their needs and wants, desires and preferences) as distinguishable from their caregivers’ (e.g., see Lampert, 2023).

We live in a socially interdependent world. Thus, human nature being what it is, as children grow beyond the normal developmental stage of self-absorption, not only does their ability to communicate falsehoods become more polished, but it also better reflects their parents’ motives for mendacity.

Initially, children lie to get what they want, whether that’s material or emotional. As children, having no authority to require their caregivers to give them what, at any given moment, seems crucial to them, they’re left to figure out indirect ways of incentivizing their parents to accommodate their desires (even if it’s just for more attention).

But as they age, their psyches become more complicated, as do their motives. And that’s when they use lying in a more tactical—and, frankly, manipulative—fashion.

It’s certainly true that principled, conscientious parents will deliberately lie to their kids to protect them from learning about things they’re not old enough to understand without feeling threatened or intimidated—such as a brutally reckless murder or masochistic, self-hating suicide.

And parents’ other protective motives might relate to:

Unquestionably, there are many self-interested, less ethically justifiable motives, too, which can harm a child’s healthy development. But this topic has already been thoroughly covered (e.g., see my reference section), so there’s no need—or, frankly, space—to delineate them here.

As regards, finally, motives for deception shared more or less equally by parents and their offspring, they both may lie to each other to:

To briefly conclude, before we utter a lie or negatively disparage someone else’s, we ought to consider whether its social or ethical value is commensurate with other ideals we endeavor to live by.

© 2024 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

References

Batson, C.D., Thompson, E.R. (2001). Why don't moral people act morally? Motivational considerations. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10(2), 54–57.

Bussey, K. (1999). Children's categorization and evaluation of different types of lies and truths. Child Development, 70(6), 1338–1347.

Cargill, J.R., and Curtis, D.A. (2017). Parental Deception: Perceived Effects on Parent-Child Relationships. Journal of Relationships Research, 8, e1.

Cinelli, E. (2023, May 30). How Lying To Your Kids Can Impact Them As Adults. https://www.familyeducation.com › kids › values › how-lying-to-your-kids-can-impact-them-as-adults.

Dunn, J. (2006). Moral development in early childhood and social interaction in the family. In: Killen, M., and Smetana, J.G., eds. (2006). Handbook of moral development, pp. 331-350. Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum

Gonser, S. (2023, Aug 24)). A parent’s guide to lying and age-appropriate consequences. https://www.parents.com/kids/development/behavioral/age-by-age-guide-to…

Heyman, G.D., Fu, G., and Lee, K. (2007). Evaluating claims people make about themselves: The development of skepticism. Child Development, 78(2), 367–375.

Moses, L.J., and Baldwin, D.A. (2005). What can the study of cognitive development reveal about children's ability to appreciate and cope with advertising? Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, 24(2), 186–201.

Perkins, S.A., and Turiel, E. (2007). To lie or not to lie: To whom and under what circumstances. Child Development, 78(2), 609–621.

Seiter, J.S., Bruschke, J., and Bai, C. (2002). The acceptability of deception as a function of perceivers' culture, deceiver's intention and deceiver-deceived relationship. Western Journal of Communication, 66(2), 158–180.

Seltzer, L.F. (2013, Apr 30). A new take on manipulation. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201304/new-t…

Seltzer, L.F. (2019,Sep 25). How white are your white lies? https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201909/how-w…

Seltzer, L.F. (2022, Aug 17). When truth is overrated: The advantages of dishonesty. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/202208/when-…

Setoh, P., Zhao, S., Santos, R., Heyman, G.D., and Lee, K. (2020). Parenting by lying in childhood is associated with negative developmental outcomes in adulthood. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 189, 104680.

Talwar, V. (2022, Jul). The truth about why kids lie. https://www.apa.org/news/podcasts/speaking-of-psychology/why-kids-lie

QOSHE - The Evolution of Lying: As We Mature, so Does Our Lying - Leon F Seltzer Phd
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The Evolution of Lying: As We Mature, so Does Our Lying

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21.02.2024

Regardless of how conscious or contrived our lying is, all of us lie. In general, however, we lie only in situations where it seems a better choice than simply telling the truth. Also, in most scenarios, lying can’t be categorically dismissed as immoral. For its practice is far more complicated.

Whether mindful or mindless, everyday examples of lying cover as many existential areas as might be imagined. And, depending on your life circumstances, particular instances of this well-nigh universal tendency may relate sharply, or only dimly, to you.

Consider some fairly common examples frequently cited in the abundant literature on this perennially controversial subject:

“He (she) started it!” Since the child fears telling the truth will virtually guarantee being punished, they disavow any responsibility for hitting their sibling first.

“But mom said I could!” They appeal to their dad, despite never even having approached their mom or asking her permission under their breath while she nodded, too busy preparing dinner to take in what they said—or maybe replied that it was up to their father.

“If you let me ________ [fill in the blank for your own child, or maybe you when you were younger], I’ll never ask for anything again.” Right, sure, but could any child really think such a promise was sustainable?

“I’m just too sick to go to school today.” But in reality, could the child want to avoid being caught not having done their homework, or might they be bullied by a classmate but too humiliated to tell their parents, and so on?

“Cracking your knuckles like that will eventually make them break.” When the truth is that this habit won’t hurt the child, even though the parent finds it extremely irritating.

“If you keep crossing your eyes, they’ll get stuck that way, and no one will want to be your friend.” That is scary, but no evidence supports it.

“When you sit so close to the TV, you’re damaging your eyes.” Maybe back in the ’50s when TVs emitted excessive radiation, but not today.

“Santa’s watching everything you do, so don’t think you can continue your shenanigans and still get Christmas presents.” Especially with a very young child, this threat could frighten them—but, unfortunately, make them more anxious than........

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