Liar, liar, pants on fire. Part I: Yes, even toddlers lie.

Back in 1999, turning on the radio might very well net you a catchy tune from Savage Garden featuring the lyrics

Animals and children tell the truth, they never lie

Which is more human

There’s a thought, now you decide

My mother was vastly amused by that song. No doubt she was recalling some of the best instances of childhood lies by myself and my sister – often trying to shift the blame on the other – and far more willing to accept the honesty of animals over children. I am not going to incriminate myself to my family by revealing what some of those lies were…and in the era of YouTube I don’t have to. Just consider:

Let’s not just go with anecdotal and video evidence. Of course, there have been studies that have investigated the deceptive prowess of little children.

One of my favorites had toddlers and preschoolers (between 2 and 5 years old) played hide and seek with a puppet. The puppet could hide small treasures in any of four buckets placed on the table, but was at a slight disadvantage in that he left a small trail of inky footprints anywhere he moved. First each child was tasked with finding the treasure, easily done by following the trail of footprints, and then watched as an adult used a handy sponge to wipe the footprints away. Then it was the child’s turn to help the puppet hide the treasure, and an adult had to find it.

Adult minds are probably already busily identifying the handful of different ways to successfully hide the toy – or more accurately, to try to deceive the person looking for it.

  • Being secretive. This includes such basic actions as not blurting out your plan for where you want to hide the toy and how you are going to trick the adult until the adult is actually out of the room, and not giving away the hiding location when the adult comes back. This requires a certain amount of impulse control, which is no forte of children this young. (Cookie theft equivalent: waiting to open the cookie jar until mom is out of the room).
  • Destroying the evidence. The children knew about the sponge and its ability to remove tracks. Assuming they realized that the tracks were a dead giveaway to the location of the treasure, all it would take is realizing that the sponge is right there, and that you can clean things up any time, to decide to quite literally erase the evidence. (Cookie theft equivalent: cleaning up the cookie crumbs).
  • Lying with words. Regardless of whether you have succeeded in destroying the evidence, you can certainly pretend you are one of those poor kids who don’t know how to keep a secret. “The puppet hid it in that box over there!”, even though the puppet never went near it. (Cookie theft equivalent: saying a sibling, or a pet, ate the cookies).
  • Lying with false evidence. No one said the puppet had to only visit the place where he hid the treasure. Why not visit some other boxes as well, to make it look like that’s where it was? This is a step above just lying with words, because it suggests a recognition that you words might not be believed in the way that evidence would. (Cookie theft equivalent: realizing there are cookie crumbs in your room, so taking the last cookie and crumbling it in your sister’s room too).
  • The combination lie. Destroying the evidence sometimes works, and planting false evidence also works…so why not do both at once? Erase the real puppet trail, and then go and send it to a false hiding place. (Cookie theft equivalent: picking up all the crumbs in your room, and putting them in your sister’s room).

All of these options were open to the children. And if the adult couldn’t find the treasure on the first try, the child “won”….and was prompted to try to come up with a new way to keep the adult from figuring out where the treasure was hidden, until they either discovered all the deceptive strategies or seemed to have hit the limits of their deceptive capabilities.

As parents might have guessed, even the 2-year-olds could be seen using some rather sophisticated deception strategies: about half of them figured out the combination lie, both hiding some evidence and creating a false trail, and virtually everyone succeeded at being secretive.

Deceptive strategies employed by young children. Adapted from Chandler, Fritz, & Hala (1989).

Deceptive strategies employed by young children. Adapted from Chandler, Fritz, & Hala (1989).

The key question, though, is not just whether children lie, but why they lie. Are they doing it for the same reasons, and with the same mental reasoning, as adults? Is it deliberate and manipulative deceit, or a more fundamental self-preservation? That, we will explore next week.
Chandler M, Fritz AS, & Hala S (1989). Small-scale deceit: deception as a marker of two-, three-, and four-year-olds’ early theories of mind. Child Development, 60 (6), 1263-1277 PMID: 2612240


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