Why children (have to) lie
That’s what it’s all about: At the age of four, children learn empathy – and lie
It’s late in the evening, going to bed time. “Have you brushed your teeth yet?” the father asks his five-year-old son admonishingly. The boy looks up from the book and answers the question without hesitation. However, a look at the dry toothbrush and the sparkling sink exposes the little fraudster.
People dizzy every day. Often these are emergency lies or so-called prosocial lies, for example out of courtesy: “This blouse suits you really well.” The deceiver, who deliberately twists the truth to his own advantage, or the blender, who exaggerates excessively for self-expression, acts more subtle.
Lying must be learned
Children are not born as fraudsters. It is not for nothing that there is the saying: Children’s mouth expressing truth. They have to learn dishonesty first, because toddlers lack the mental tools to perfect lie. Simply put, there is only one reality for a two- or three-year-old, and that is his own. Everything he is doing, seeing or thinking – according to his logic – all other people also see and think.
Only at the age of four is a child able to empathize with the thoughts of his fellow human beings. The reason lies, among other things, in the maturation of the child’s brain. In three- to four-year-old children, nerve pathways develop that connect the prefrontal cortex, the center for cognitive action planning and emotion regulation, with the temporo-parietal transition. This zone between the crown and temple lobes of the brain processes visual, auditory and sensory information. What does this development mean?
A child and another subject see that the study director places an object in a box A. After the subject has left the room, the study director takes the object again and places it in a box B. Now the child is asked in which box the subject will suspect the object when he comes back. Three-year-olds tap Box B, because after all, the object is there. From his point of view, this is the only possible reality.
Only four-year-olds understand in this “false-lief” test that the subject cannot know about repackaging the object, as he has not observed this process. They tap Box A, even though they know better themselves. They understand that the reality of the subject is different from their own. From now on, this cognitive peak performance called “Theory of Mind” empowers the child not only to empathy and planned action, but also to consciously cheat.
The moral ideas of a society are difficult for a small child to understand
As soon as the children have understood the difference between reality and fiction, they are confronted with a paradox: On the one hand, parents measure child dishonesty in everyday situations. On the other hand, they temporarily ask their offspring to lie. For Aunt Hilde’s unloved gift, for example, the children should still thank and pretend joy and observe adults, such as they apologize for delays with a lack of traffic jam. However, if they flunish about brushing their teeth, the parents are upset.
Understanding this is not easy for children. What is allowed, what is prohibited? Where is the line between tolerated, social flunge and an outlawed, false lie? The moral values of the family and society in which it grows up shape this learning process as well as cultural influences.
With the ability to lie, important social characteristics develop
Children do not only use the acquired knowledge for selfish cheating. Successful liars show above-average social competence, communication skills and empathy. This makes them popular group partners.
If you lie, you have to be creative
Researchers showed in studies that skillful liars are often particularly creative and intelligent people. This is not surprising, because the lie alone is not enough. In retrospect, several realities must be created and maintained so that the building of lies does not collapse. Even a discrepancy, a small contradiction in the story makes the other person pay attention. This requires the highest concentration and self-control, but also ingenuity and complex thinking.
Talk to the child instead of punishing
Parents should explain why honesty is important instead of reprimanding lies across the board. In this way, they give the child their own moral values without confusing him.