Monday, November 21, 2016


Sometimes a kid will run ahead of her parents and arrive at school a few seconds ahead of them. When that happens, I often joke, "Hey, did you drive yourself to school today?" Normally, children laugh and let me know that mom is right behind them, but last week one boy paused, looked at me wide-eyed, and said as earnestly as he could, "Yes."

"You drove your own car?"


When other children challenged him, "Kids can't drive cars!" he stuck to his story, "I can drive a car." His mother had been delayed by a conversation on the playground, but when she entered the room, he looked from us to her, then quietly went about washing his hands, not saying another word, although for the rest of the week, when mom wasn't around, he went back to insisting that he could drive a car.

We want our children to be honest, of course, but they all lie at one time or another. In fact, lying is probably a necessary stage of cognitive development:

Lying, it turns out, is actually a sign of something good happening in the developing brain. Dishonesty requires some mental heavy lifting, like figuring out what another person knows and how to use that information to your advantage. Many kids start experimenting with stretching the truth between ages 3 and 4. "In a way, it's almost like they exercise a new ability," (developmental psychologist Victoria) Talwar says. "And part of that is, 'Mommy doesn't know what I just did.' . . . That thought sounds simple, but it's actually quite profound. It means that a child is developing what scientists call theory of mind -- the ability to understand the perspectives of other people and realize that those perspectives are sometimes different.

Now, in my example, my joke had created an easy opportunity for a lie, but you can see that "heavy lifting" in action. The boy recognized that none of us could know how he had gotten to school because we hadn't been there, so told us a story that he felt, I presume, made him look cool. The moment his mother was on the scene, however, he clammed up knowing that she was the only one who could refute him.

Of course, as far as lies go, this was an inconsequential one, so the rest of us treated it like a sort of joke he was telling in response to mine, but sometimes a child's lies are more consequential. For instance, the other day I accidentally "busted" one of our kindergarteners with his pockets full of florist marbles he'd collected on the playground. Although he was clearly attempting to take this community property as his own, he swore up and down that his intent all along was to leave them outside when he went home. Last week, a three-year-old insisted that she hadn't hit a classmate even though I saw it with my own eyes (although she didn't see me see it). And even if we know that these lies are a sign of a normally developing child, we also want to create a culture of honesty.

The best way to to that, of course, is to make sure to point out honesty when you see it and to strive to be truthful yourself because we all know that young children can suss out lies almost as well as adults. But to be honest, lying is a life skill that most of us use every day, even if it is only to tell little "white lies" or lies by omission in the interest of not hurting someone's feelings or to avoid conflict. We might tell our children, "No lying," but what we mean is that we want them to learn the difference between lies meant to hurt others and those we tell to help others. Perhaps both are morally wrong, I'll stipulate to that, but we all do it nevertheless.

When a lie is egregious, I've been known to simply tell a child, for instance, "I don't believe you because I saw you hit her." I strive to not raise my voice, but rather speak calmly as if simply providing the facts. Too often, adults start in with accusatory questions to which they already know the answer, "Did you hit her?" setting the stage for the child to dig in. Much better, I think is to stick with informative statements like, "She said you hit her" or "I saw you hit her," leaving them the space to do their own thinking, and when they do confess to first acknowledge their honesty (even if it comes a little later than we would like) before addressing the hitting.

Lying is annoying and worrisome, but it is a sign of a normally developing child. And while the "theory of mind" is behind their ability to concoct tall tales, we also must understand that it is also what's ultimately behind the ability to empathize with our fellow humans.

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