COLD SPRING, N.Y. — A few weeks ago, as part of his normal evening ritual, my almost 3-year-old son used the potty, brushed his teeth and climbed into bed. As we were saying our night-nights, he interjected: "Mommy, I need to use the potty." It had been about six minutes since he'd gone. I suspected he was trying out a new bedtime stall tactic, but I couldn't not let him try. He sat on the potty. We waited. Then: "I don't need to go."
I had just caught my son in a lie - the first I'd ever noticed. The next night, it was the same thing all over again. I had no idea what to do.
So I started reading the research on childhood lying. Turns out there's a lot of it, because by studying how and when children lie, psychologists can glean new insights into psychological development. I, of course, was more interested in the practical applications: How do I keep my kid from turning into a sociopath? Dozens of research papers and several phone calls later, I've learned that not only is lying completely normal in kids, it's actually a sign of healthy development. And yes, there are things parents can do to foster honesty in their kids - things that I haven't been getting exactly right.
If your kid has been lying, "that's very, very normal," explains Kang Lee, a developmental psychologist at the University of Toronto who has been studying lying in children for 20 years. Generally, kids start to lie by around the age of 2 1/2 or 3, usually to cover up transgressions. In a classic 1989 study, researchers at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey took individual 3-year-olds into a room equipped with a hidden video camera and a one-way mirror and sat them facing away from a table. The researchers told the children they were going to put a surprise toy on the table and instructed the kids not to look at it. Then the researchers left the room. They returned either once the children had peeked at the toy (most did) or after five minutes had passed, and asked the kids whether they had looked. A whopping 38 percent of the kids who had snuck a peek lied, assuring the researchers that they hadn't seen the toy. In a similarly designed 2002 study co-authored by Lee, 54 percent of 3-year-olds lied about peeking, whereas more than three-quarters of kids aged 4 to 7 did.