Dr. Lee’s TED talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/kang_lee_can_you_really_tell_if_a_kid_is_lying
Jen: [00:30] Welcome to today’s episode of Your Parenting Mojo, which is called My Child is Lying to Me! I became interested in this topic after I researched the episode on symbolic representation in art, which relies on the child’s understanding of what I know might be different from what she knows and that turns out that that concept is also important in lying because if I’m a toddler and as far as I know what’s in your head is the same as what’s in my head, why would I bother lying to you? And so I also started to wonder about the connections between lying and joking. After my one year old started telling me jokes: she would point to a pig and say “ats cow” and I’d say “really?” And she’d say “no.” So lying is a really pervasive human behavior, but I’m wondering how do children learn how to lie and why do they do it and is there anything we can do to encourage them to be more truthful more often. So let’s dive right into that topic in a conversation with Dr Kang Lee, who’s a University Distinguished Professor at the University of Toronto, Dr Lee received his B.S. and M.A. from Hangzhou University in China and his Ph.D from the University of New Brunswick in Canada. Dr Lee has been studying lying for a really long time, but we hope he’s going to tell us the truth today because we need the help. Welcome Dr Lee. Thanks for joining us.
Dr. Lee: [01:44] Hi. Thanks for inviting me to be part of your program.
Jen: [01:48] Alright, so let’s start at the beginning. What are some of the reasons that people lie and do all people lie?
Dr. Lee: [01:54] So as far as I can tell, among the kids we have seen, we have seen possibly over 10,000 kids from all ages as young as two years of age, all the way up to 16, 17 years of age. The majority of them would lie in various kinds of situations. The first kind of like kids tell, tend to be motivated by self protection and typically what happens is when they have done something wrong, they haven’t done something I’m not supposed to do and then they have to cover that up and that’s one of the most frequent kind of lies kids tell. And the one of the earliest kind of lies kids tell.
Jen: [02:37] Okay. And so I’m just thinking through what are the logical consequences of what you just said, if, if I try and set up my home so that there are fewer things that my child is not supposed to do so that I put things out of reach that she’s not supposed to play with. And you know, kids get into stuff and sometimes things happen, but am I reducing the possibility that my two year old is going to lie to me if I…no. We have our video on and you’re shaking your head.
Dr. Lee: [03:08] You know, the kids, the jobs of a child is to learn the various rules of our society. We actually have a lot of rules. You know, you should do this, you should do not do that. But you know, during the learning process, you know, the child does not always listen to you and they say do not touch this. It’s not going to be good. And then, but the child sometimes it has this problem we call a deficit in inhibitory control because they are learning to control their behaviors, but they are not quite there yet. That the brain is not matured to a point that, that the way wherever you tell a child not to do the immediately do not do it. It’s not going to happen. So then the child would do something even for adults and say don’t do this.
Dr. Lee: [03:54] And the adults also find it difficult to not do certain things that you tell them not to do. So because of this struggle, sometimes the kids would violate the rules, violate the things you know, you set out for kids, and then what they’re going to do. So because kids, they do not have political power, they do not have the physical power. So one of the things that they can turn to really is to, using their mind, their ability to use the language. So they discover very quickly, as soon as they learn how to speak basically, and they say, Oh yes, you know, if I just simply move the lips of my mouth, I actually can get mom to believe that I have not done something that I’m not supposed to do. And that actually happens around two and two and half years of age.
Jen: [04:47] Okay. So, okay, so this starts really early then I’m thinking about, you know, why, why do people lie in general? And it seems as though there are a lot of reasons and we typically say, Oh, I want my child to be truthful all the time, but we’re not truthful all the time, right?
Dr. Lee: [05:05] No, no. And so the first kind of lies I call for self protection, right? So that happens all the time to just not sure, just make sure we do not get into trouble. And, and lying is a very, very efficient way of getting us out of trouble. So that’s the first kind of license. So I called self protection lies. Another kind of lines is for self personal benefits to gain something. For example, you know, you sometimes you want to get the toy you want, but you may have to lie to your brother or sister so that they will not touch the toy you really want. So that’s another kind of lies to win competition. And that happens all the time in the adult environment as well. But the third kind of lies interesting one that is the I call white lies.
Dr. Lee: [05:55] These are the lies we tell to avoid hurting another person’s feelings. And these are kinds of lies actually we are socialized to do, you know, we as parents, we want to raise our kids to be polite kids and in order to do that we actually sometimes teach our kids not to tell the truth. And the kids actually learn very quickly as soon as they turn three years of age, they would learn to not to say certain things that are going to hurt other people’s feelings. For example, if the child sees a person who, who has a facial anomoly, or the person is overweight. You don’t want any child to see, you know, see something like, “oh, you are fat,” or “you have something strange on your face.” Rather you want your child not to say anything. And then sometimes they even have to lie about it. And so, so these kinds of politeness kind of lies or white lies are actually socialized by us, by the society. So we do that all the time. You know, when we say oh, your hair cut looks great. You know, your dress looks great, your food looks great, you know, because just think about this. If you don’t tell white lies in some situations you’re not going to have any friends.
Jen: [07:08] Your hair looks great by the way.
Dr. Lee: [07:13] I hope it does!
Jen: [07:14] And that that makes a ton of sense. But as a two year old, three year olds. I wonder how do they figure out the difference between the lies that we want them to tell and the lies that we don’t want them to tell.
Dr. Lee: [07:23] This is very confusing for kids. I mean we parents always say, tell the truth, you know, I want you to be the honest job and they do everything they could tweak, kind of convey this message. But at the same time when your child tells the truth and the parents actually don’t encourage them, for example, the child says, oh, that person is fair to right in front of the person. And the parents really get very embarrassed by that. And they say, you shouldn’t do this. You shouldn’t say that. And then the child gets confused and you said I have to be honest. Now you say no, so that kind of situation becomes an issue and a lot of parents are not prepared to teach their kids about different situations one are to tell the truth and sometimes you have to not to tell the truth all the time. So I think this kind of socialization should start early.
Jen: [08:16] And when you say that what you mean is you should help the children to understand when they should tell a white lie and when they should tell the truth and how do you do that?
Dr. Lee: [08:25] Exactly. So when you are encouraging your child to tell a white lie, for example, you have to tell them why that’s important, the rationale behind it. And then when you ask your child not to tell a lie, you don’t say, do not tell her like don’t say it generically, but say, if this happens, I want you to tell me the truth. And that’s very important for the child to know from the very beginning in what kinds of situations lies are not permissible and in what kinds of situations lies are permissible.
Jen: [08:58] That’s an awesome little nugget of wisdom for parents. And how old do you think children can be when they understand that, you know, my toddler is two and a half right now. Is is that too early?
Dr. Lee: [09:07] Not really. So the, the are the studies showing that the kids are abroad this age are able to know that what is the true state of affairs and what is false. So the truth and false is understandable by about two yields by three and four years of age. They actually can tell the difference between a lie and the truth. So they are very sophisticated. And then another thing, you know, you mentioned about children’s representation of things in the world. We always, you know, thought kids under six years of age are unable to tell the difference between what’s imagined and what’s magical about what’s real and true. And they actually can tell very, very well. So something they have imagined in their brain and they can talk about that and something. They actually come up as a lie. They can tell the difference under six years of age. So they are very sophisticated.
Jen: [10:04] Okay. So let’s jump to that topic a little bit and that was actually one of the reasons that I first reached out to you because if this kind of discrepancy in the literature that I was finding, you know, I had read the theory of mine doesn’t normally develop until around age four, but the children as young as two can tell lies and so can you tell us a bit about what theory of mind is and why it matters and where this discrepancy plays out in your work.
Dr. Lee: [10:26] So let me just backtrack a little bit. So we have been looking for various factors that make a child more likely to lie or less likely to lie. So we have looked at almost everything. We looked at gender; we wanted to know are girls more likely to lie the boys or vice versa. It turns out that there’s no difference. It’s boys and girls are equally likely to lie, and they equally lie well or not very well. So their skills of lying is also very similar. Then we say, okay, what about parents? Right? You know, do parents with different kinds of parenting styles, would they produce kids who like earlier or later it turns out that that also doesn’t matter. So no matter whether or not you are permissible parents or you are a very strict parents, your kids are still as much as likely to lie as the next kid.
Jen: [11:18] There’s no hope!
Dr. Lee: [11:20] No hope. What about, let’s see, religion, right? So you’re more religious. Would a more religious family produce more truth tellers and turns out that’s not true either, so regardless of what religion, how much you practice it, your kids are still as likely to lie as the next kid in the next family. So I see. What else are we looked at? The children’s personalities all can maybe, you know, personality, right? Some kids are more shy than the others; will the more outgoing kids be more likely to lie more than the shy kids? It turned out that also is irrelevant. So we looked at at many, many factors and turn out there are two important factors I call ingredients for lying. So one is theory of mind. So this is the idea that I, you know, different people have different beliefs and knowledge about the world because it’s a very essential for lying because the point of lying is I know you don’t know what I know and therefore I can lie to you. And children actually understand this at about two years of age, if not earlier. Therefore it’s very likely your child is going to live very soon or has already.
Jen: [12:31] Well, she already told me that a cow is a pig or a pig is a cow.
Dr. Lee: [12:38] They actually can tell the difference between what I know and what you know.
Jen: [12:41] Okay. So before you move on from that, I want, I want to just tease that out a little bit. So there is sort of a classic test of...