Tell Me Sweet Little Lies

By Marjorie Ingall

Published November 17, 2006, issue of November 17, 2006.
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When I was 5, I decided to try woodcarving. So I grabbed a knife and went to town on the antique sideboard my mother had painstakingly stripped and refinished herself. I was no dummy; instead of carving my own name, I scratched out “ANDY” — my brother’s name. Hours later, when the knife was safely back in the kitchen drawer and my mom’s screams rent the fabric of space and time, I batted my eyes and looked innocent. Andy protested that he hadn’t done it, but this wasn’t “Law & Order: Manipulative Siblings Unit.” No one dusted the knives for prints. I got off scot-free.

Perhaps this incident emboldened me a year or two later, as I was picking up our gerbil, Virginia, and accidentally let go of the spring-loaded door of her cage. I was left open-mouthed, holding a tail, while Virginia scampered about the cage below. At the time, I didn’t know that gerbils’ tails snap off when you look at them funny, an evolutionary party trick that lets them ditch predators. All I knew was that I was holding a tail. So I turned to Andy, who was standing beside me, watching. “How could you have broken off Virginia’s tail like that!” I gasped. It became part of the family lore: Andy broke off the gerbil’s tail. Years later, when we were both adults, I casually said to him, “Hey, remember when I made you take the fall for the gerbil’s tail?” He had no idea what I was talking about. He fervently believed he’d broken the tail himself. He insisted he actually had a sense memory of clutching the snapped-off tail in one hand and the metal cage door in the other! I had implanted a false memory in my brother! I am so gonna tell him he had performed ritual sacrifices on chickens and had sex with dogs behind the bleachers in gym! Don’t tell him.

But seriously: Kids lie. It doesn’t mean they’re sociopaths. (Though my behavior came pretty close, no?) Kids lie for the same reasons grownups do: To test limits, to revel in attention and the power of narrative, and (see me in the two anecdotes above) to avoid blame. But if everybody lies, why do parents so often freak out about kids’ prevarication? For the same reasons we freak out about most things about parenting that make us freak out. We worry that our kids’ lies mean we’re doing a bad job as parents, or that they reflect badly on us to the outside world, or that we’re raising a little Bundy (Al or Ted, either way).

Relax, said Kiki Shaffer, director of the 14th Street Y’s Parenting and Family Center. “The rule is that under age 3, no one is lying!” Kids under 3 or 4 often engage in magical thinking: They wish so much that what they’re saying is true, they have a hard time believing it isn’t. When my friend’s 2-year-old pooped in the tub recently and promptly blamed the family dog, she wasn’t lying, exactly. She truly wanted the dog to have done it.

“Where it begins to get interesting is at age 4 and 5,” Shaffer said. “Kids begin to exaggerate deliberately, but a lie isn’t the same thing as an exaggeration.” So when Josie talks about how she jumped a hundred feet off the jungle gym, she’s merely being exuberant, exploring what makes for effective storytelling. Rather than saying. “C’mon, now, a hundred feet?” Shaffer suggests simply using language that reflects back what Josie wants to communicate: “You must have jumped so far! Was it exciting?”

When writer Judith Newman took her son, Henry, to vote last week, he wept piteously as they exited the polling place because he learned that he himself could not exercise his constitutional right to vote, what with it not existing, what with him being 5. But by the time he and his mom got back to their building, he’d cheered up. He told their doorman that he’d voted to get rid of the bad president and that, in an apparently little-seen ballot initiative, he voted for all people to be good — even bad guys. He also voted for five new Transformers for himself. (Truthfully, how is this different from voting for Ralph Nader? It’s just as relevant to the real world.)

And my friend Jessica’s son, Rafe, is extremely creative in his mission to avoid foods he doesn’t like. He is, like many 4-year-olds, train obsessed. Sometimes he claims to actually be a train. So it stands to reason that he has his own personal “train doctor,” whom he seems to have visited every time he’s been served vegetables. The good doctor has thoughtfully provided a list for Jessica of what foods are good to put into Rafe’s firebox, to give him energy so that he can go fast and be an express. (These include cake, cookies, chips, hot dogs, candy, chocolate milk and chai lattes.) Sometimes, though, Rafe simply insists that since he’s a train, all he needs to eat is coal.

“There’s a playfulness and imaginativeness here that you don’t want to crush,” Shaffer said. It’s fun for both parent and kid to tease out even more details of the narrative, to draw pictures of the candy-fueled express train, to discuss the fabulous qualities of the Transformers that Henry would like to have.

As kids get older, though, their attitudes toward lying become more nuanced. In a 1983 study by Candida Peterson, James Peterson and Diane Seeto at Murdoch University in Australia, 92% of 5-year-olds said that lying is always wrong, and 75% of them claimed they never, ever lied. But of the 11-year-olds, only 28% said that lying is always wrong and none claimed never to have lied. These findings fit with Jean Piaget’s classic theories of how moral reasoning develops. Five-year-olds say that lying is bad because adults punish you for it. Older kids tend to say that lying is bad because it’s a betrayal of trust. And of course, as we get older we learn about telling little white lies to salvage the feelings of others (“Your haircut looks cute!” “No one will notice the run in your stocking!”). “Honesty matters, but respect for feelings also matters,” Shaffer said. “Not hurting feelings is a huge value. Age 5 is a middle place where you can start to teach empathy and respect for feelings.”

And encouraging empathy is always a good teaching tool. When Josie lies and says she’s fed the cat when I know she hasn’t, there’s no point in trying to “gotcha” her. I know that she’s testing limits, figuring out what she can get away with. But if her only motivation to refrain from lying is to avoid getting caught, that’s a crappy incentive. Much better is for me to say: “Hey, how hungry do you think the cat is, after not eating all night? Do you think she could eat a horse? A cow? How about a lake of milk? Have you ever been that hungry? Well, let’s remember those feelings when we think about how starving the kitty feels in the morning. That’s what she’s telling you when she meows at her bowl, and you have the power and responsibility to make her full and happy! Are you sure you can reach the scoop in the cat food?” Eager to prove how she can do it herself, Josie then does. By working on problem solving rather than playing the blame game (oh, dear God, I’m channeling the president — thank goodness Henry got rid of him!), I can lay a better foundation for changing undesirable behavior in the long run.

Lest you think I’m tooting my perfect-parent horn here, I type way better than I act. I am often an unpleasantly vengeful Old Testament God. I berate Josie (and soon, I’m sure, Maxie) beyond the point of usefulness. I know what I should do, and I know that bellowing and harping are not superb agents of change, but I snarl anyway. It ain’t pretty. It’s behavior I work on all the time.

But where was I? Ah, yes. The best way to keep your kids honest, Shaffer said, is to be honest yourself. “Model good behavior,” she said. “When your child falls down and cries, and you say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t hurt’ when it obviously does, or when you say, ‘We’re almost there’ on a long car ride when you’re not, your child sees that there’s something in your communication that isn’t truthful.” And a little bit of trust gets broken. If you promise to play a game after dinner and then backpedal, you show your child that your word is no bond. And if your kid does fess up to a lie, and you come down like the Hebrew Hammer instead of praising him for being brave enough to own up to his mistakes, well, you reap what you sow, mameles and tateles.

Write to Marjorie at

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