No one likes a liar. So why teach our kids to tell lies?



Liar, liar.

Ever noticed that we simultaneously disapprove and approve of our children telling lies?

Actually, it’s worse than that.

Ever noticed in yourself the flagrant hypocrisy that would allow you to reprimand or punish your children for lying, while at the same time actively coach them in exactly how and why to do it?

Be honest… it goes something like this.

“Don’t tell me lies” we’ll tell our little miscreant, frowning darkly.

And then, in How to be an Awesomely Consistent Parent 101, we’ll say “Tell Grandma how much you like the lovely sweater she knitted especially for you”.

“Thanks Grandma. I love my new sweater you knitted especially for me…”

Precious little darling isn’t he? So kind to Grandma.

Ba boom.

Now note if you’re smiling awkwardly and/or immediately rationalizing to yourself that the story to Grandma isn’t really lying. Now note if you’re rationalizing your rationalizing.

Awkward isn’t it.

Apart from following the well-worn maxim that you can’t be polite and honest in the same sentence, this is a confusing piece of parenting. I’m pretty certain most of us are guilty of this at some stage.

But it is incredibly revealing.

What’s going on?

We’re wired for each other.

It’s a rare human that doesn’t feel the need for others; avoidant personality disorder and some computer programmers aside.

Your brain is a social brain. It’s affected by, and affects, the brains of others. That you probably know this is evidence of what’s called Theory of Mind (ToM), which is the ability to know that you have a mind, and that other people do too, and that their intents, feelings, attitudes and so on, are different and independent from yours.

It’s an extraordinary ability we seem to be able to learn and employ with ridiculous ease, so much so that we’re usually gloriously unaware of it.

You started doing it early

ToM develops from about the age of three and, through age three and four, children become aware of themselves as an independent agent in their environment, and that you and others are independent agents too. Moreover, they learn that you have a different mind from them, and that what they do can influence your mind.

That makes for fascinating timing, because it’s also at this time that children start to tell lies designed specifically to deceive your mind. Some children lie before this in order to hide something they’ve done; this isn’t directed at your mind just at covering up what they did.

But at three and a half, or thereabouts, these lies reveal the monumental advances your child’s brain has made. Now when she lies, she is doing so from a worldview that recognizes you are a different agent from her, that you have different goals, and that she can construct an alternate reality for you that will alter your mind.

While she hasn’t the insight, language, or cognitive ability to articulate what she’s doing, her brain, and her theory of mind are by now complete enough to manage this astonishing feat.

At three and a half.

Staggering. The brain’s ability to learn about other brains and minds is inbuilt, incredibly powerful, and extremely useful.

Remarkable power

As we said, we’re wired for other people, hardwired, for good and bad.

Deceit is only one thing, and we do it all the time in knowing and unknowing ways. And we’re deceived by others, and ourselves, frequently. Yet understanding other people is how we get on in life, and it requires that we are constantly assessing people, gathering information, and making predictions about their mind which we can see outworked in their behavior now or later.

Making predictions is something the brain works hard to do, for it’s extremely beneficial. Given the amount of information raining upon it at any one time, it filters, sorts, decides what’s important, ascribes meaning to it, then determines if action is required and, if so, what action and how quickly. Then it stores this pattern for later use.

This is serious computational power, at work, all the time. And it helps us build trust, make friends, decide on enemies, adopt shared goals, form alliances, betray others and so on.

An application

When a positive pattern is re-triggered, such as seeing a good friend again, the brain bathes in happy chemistry. Anticipatory dopamine is released, and then oxytocin. Oxytocin is a social glue, and both oxytocin and dopamine are involved in reward. Friends make the brain feel good.

Enemies activate threat networks, warnings and fear in various measures. No happy chemistry here, but focused attention on the threat and how to negotiate it, rather than on feel goods.

If you think about how often you pay attention to someone else and adjust yourself to suit, you realize how much attention we pay to the minds of others, and the impact of others’ behavior on us.

As a rule, women are much better at interpreting social situations than men. Some people lack this social brain, to a greater or lesser degree, as with some of the autistic conditions, which makes interactions incredibly difficult. Some people understand the minds of others extremely well. If they care about the other person we say they’re empathic. If they understand others well but don’t care about the other and want to exploit them then they’re probably a sociopath.

But navigating our way through life requires that we rub shoulders with all kinds, and that we figure out a way to get along. That we understand their minds.

So we do.

We learn how to understand others’ minds, intents, feelings, attitudes and goals.

And we tell lies.

And we teach our children how to tell lies. Just little ones mind…

So here’s the take home bit

You’ve heard that nobody has a good enough memory to be a perfect liar. True enough.

But when children start to lie it is direct evidence of the maturing brain and the capacity it is developing. It’s normal for children to begin lying, and it’s akin to re-imagined, shared memory. Typically, the better the liar, the more creative they are too.

For some people, lying becomes a means to an end, and a convenient way of negotiating many relationships. For others it’s a simple way of getting past awkward truths which might have little consequence.

For all of these the brain is seeking to predict, forever searching for meaning and looking for patterns, and with it comes the knowledge of  how to influence the brain and mind of another.

At the same time, our brains and minds are being influenced by others, some negatively, some positively.

So, be honest.

What do we teach our children?

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Theory of mind, Dopamine, Oxytocin

What do you think?

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
This entry was posted in Children, Emotion, General, Memory. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to No one likes a liar. So why teach our kids to tell lies?

  1. Cindy says:

    Interesting points, Brendon. Wouldn’t mind some help in teaching an older teenager how to stop using constant small lies to make herself look better (it’s not my fault/I didn’t do it/you didn’t hear me, etc.), rather than speaking the truth. And then getting very angry when she is not believed.

  2. Make it after 10 and you have a deal.

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