The Commandment “Thou shalt not lie” isn’t vague; it leaves little room for the untruths that grease the wheels of society. However, University of Texas psychology professor Dr. Art Markman explains, flexibility is strongly implied. “We like simple statements of our ethical principles, even though we know there’s an asterisk,” he says. And, in the case of lying, the asterisk is in bigger, bolder font. In orderly to participate in society, humans–even little humans–have to lie. Understanding how to do so is a critical part of growing up, even if parents are often loathe to broach the subject in those terms.
Markman considers helping a kid understand the hows and whens of lying similarly to explaining how to swear. He suggests we teach kids about swearing not because the words themselves are inherently evil but “because the kid isn’t old enough to figure out the social situations in which they are appropriate.” Rather than letting them figure it out through trial and error, parents limit the trials up front then try to help kids avoid errors. An incredibly honest four-year-old is fine, but manners—and all the white lies those entail—are expected of those capable of feeding themselves.
“Social ability is a tool,” says Markman. “And like any tool, it can be used for good or evil.”
Deception requires the same mental abilities that allow a kid to be social. So, as a child’s brain develops the ability to lie, why not consciously bend the ability toward good? It doesn’t require fib flashcards or special fables about how, unlike Washington, Nixon could only tell a lie. It simply requires supporting the natural tools they’re already developing around age three: theory of mind and empathy.
Theory of mind is the term of art for metacognition, which allows a child to understand that people can have desires and thoughts different than their own, and that those thoughts and desires can be manipulated. This is the foundation on which both lies and, more importantly, relationships are built.
Parents can actually help their kids develop a more sophisticated social understanding using games deployed in theory of mind studies. These games usually include two people and a coveted item. One person hides a coveted item in view of a child then leaves the room, at which point the child is asked to move the item. When the person returns, children who’ve yet to develop theory of mind will usually assume their counterpart knows where the item is because they don’t understand that different people can know different things.
In other words, it’s possible to illicit untruths from children without theory of mind, but those are just reactions. Lying is the result of a developmental process.
“The more you practice and work with them to really start thinking about it, the more they get this insight,” says Markman. “There’s really good evidence now that if you train kids to get better at theory of mind they actually start lying.”
But good lying consists of more than just coughing up falsehoods. As anyone who has ever had an office job can testify, dissembling is a key part of the human experience, especially within hierarchies. Consider the classic parental aphorism “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” in this light. This is a prescribed lie of omission. But that’s still a lie—if not semantically, from a neurological perspective.
Dr. Julian Keenan of the Cognitive Neuroimaging Lab at Montclair State University has studied a very specific lie of omission called “paltering,” which requires an individual to say something truthful in order to be deceptive. It’s a common practice in gambling—a double bluff where a player might tell someone about their legitimately excellent hand in order to make their opponent think they’re bluffing. When watching scans of participants brain activities while paltering, Keenan noticed something remarkable. Even though they were telling the truth their brains were lighting up as if they were lying.
“It’s the intention behind the words you are saying, not the actual semantics of the words,” Keenan explains.
The implication is that all untruths are lies, but not all lies are untruths. And that’s where empathy comes in. Keenan explains that “paltering” often involves “other-centered” lies, bits of misdirection and flattery that make acquaintances and loved ones happier or more comfortable. This is what makes it possible to teach a child to lie in the service of kindness and closeness.
Keenan notes that girls are better at this sooner. “They can pick up on the benefit of other-centered lies and how it’s a good thing to do,” he explains. “You’ll see it emerge in girls around the age of 4. For boys, it doesn’t happen until 5 or 6.”
Markman has a shortcut: reading. While television is the standard media for kids, it doesn’t allow them to see the inner emotional workings and motivations of the characters. That’s not the case with books. Reading to a child or getting them hooked on reading helps them understand that people, be they real or fictional have complex inner lives. That understanding is key empathy and theory of mind.
“One of the reasons why parents should hook their kids on reading interesting stories is so that they spend a lot of time in other people’s heads,” says Markman. “And the more that they do that, the better they get at thinking about what other people might be thinking.”
If that leads to bad lies as well as good, Markman urges patience. Swift and angry retribution generally lead to more deception or even avoidance. It’s also poor strategy. Young children are very bad at lying. They’re still learning to do it properly. Better to be involved in that process than not.