Lying and Stealing

Lying and Stealing


Lying and stealing are common, but inappropriate behavior in toddlers and school-aged children. While some severe forms of these behaviors can indicate a more serious psychological problem, most of the time it is simply a common behavior that will be outgrown. Lying and stealing are more common in boys than girls, and occur most often in children ages 2 to 8 years.

The bad news is: Your two-year-old may be a liar. The good news is: If she is, it’s a sign of advanced cognitive skills.

Although previously, the youngest age at which children were known to lie was 3½, in an experiment by Brock University psychologist Angela Evans, lies were told by:

  • 25 per cent of two-year-olds.
  • 50 per cent of three-year-olds.
  • 80 per cent of four-year-olds.

Evans published the results of the study in the journal Developmental Psychology in January in an article co-authored by University of Toronto researcher Kang Lee.

She said the most interesting finding of the study is that lie-telling appeared to be linked to brain development.

Evans said she became interested  in learning more about children’s ability to lie, what they do and don’t understand about truth and lies, and methods for promoting honesty among children, because that information is relevant to children’s involvement in the legal system, for example, as witnesses.

‘Really tempting’ situation

For her experiment, Evans placed 41 two-year-olds and 24 three-year-olds in a “really tempting situation,” in which an adult asks a child to guess the identity of a toy based on the noise it makes, for example, a quacking duck. At a certain point in the experiment, the adult leaves the room, telling the child not to peek at the next toy. A hidden camera records whether the child peeks. The adult then returns and asks the child, “Did you peek at the toy?”

While even two-year-olds appear to understand that they aren’t telling the truth, they aren’t deliberately trying to mislead anyone, Evans said.

“It’s just that they wish they hadn’t done that and so they say that they hadn’t.”

In addition to testing how likely children were to lie, Evans also tested the children for the brain skills needed to be able to tell a lie.

“When you think about telling a lie, you have to think about what happened, you have to prevent yourself from saying what actually happened, you have to provide an alternative response,” she said.

Lie-telling was linked to better performance on a task that requires them to prevent themselves from giving the “obvious” response. In that task, they were asked to say “night” when viewing the picture of a sun and “day” when viewing a picture of a moon.

Evans notes that even though children appear able to lie at a much earlier age than previously believed, younger children tend to give away the fact that they lied if asked follow-up questions, such as the identity of the toy.

She said that gives parents the opportunity to talk about what is right or wrong.

Evans also offered one other reassuring reminder to parents.

“We all tell lies,” she said. “So it’s not necessarily an awful thing.”

Handling the situation when your child is lying:

When confronted with a child who is lying, it is important to first remember the child’s age and developmental stage. Children under the age of 3 do not lie on purpose. This age group does not understand what they are saying and instead are just experimenting with language and new found facts about the world. They might also lie to avoid punishment because they understand the consequences but have an undeveloped moral code. Children from the ages of 3 to 7 often have problems separating the real world from fantasy. They might have imaginary playmates at this age and enjoy fairy tales and make-believe play. The lies told by this age group are mostly tales that they have made up, not intentional lies. By the age of 6 or 7, however, children understand what lying is, but will continue to cheat if able. Children from the ages of 6 to 12 understand what lying is and the moral wrongness of this behavior. However, children may continue to lie in order to test adult rules and limits. The child may admit to telling a lie, but usually he/she has many reasons for having done so. Rules are very important at this age, so cheating becomes less important.

Other factors that may cause a child to lie:

  • Children may lie if their parents’ expectations of them are too high.
  • Children may lie about their grades if parents assume that they are doing better in school than they really are.
  • If a child is asked why he/she did some bad behavior, the child may lie because he/she is unable to explain the actions.
  • Children who are not disciplined on a consistent basis may lie.
  • Children who do not receive praise and reward may lie to get this attention.

When does lying become a concern?

There are multiple situations that may cause concern. If any of these apply to your child, it is important to consult your child’s physician:

  • A child who is lying and at the same time having other behavioral problems such as setting things on fire, being mean to animals, having sleep problems, or is very hyperactive, may have more psychological problems.
  • Children who do not have many friends or do not want to play in groups may have poor self-esteem and be depressed.
  • Children lie in order to get something from someone else and do not show any signs of regret.

Handling the situation when your child is stealing:

Stealing often causes more concern to parents because it may happen outside the home and may affect other people. During the school years, stealing may be a sign of a problem, but it may also be a result of peer pressure and the need for the child to fit in. It is important to look at the whole situation. Children under the age of 3 take things because they do not understand fully the difference between what is “mine” and what is not. They then may become possessive of their things and protect them. They do not steal with bad intentions. Children between the ages of 3 and 7 begin to respect things that belong to others. However, this age group will trade property without regard to value if something else is wanted. The respect for property continues in the school-aged child. By the time the child is 9, the child should respect the possessions of others and understand that stealing is wrong. Children in this age group may continue to steal because of several factors, including the following:

  • They may feel peer pressure and the need to fit in.
  • They may have low self-esteem.
  • They may not have any friends and are trying to “buy” their friends.
  • They may try to become good at stealing to feel proud of something they have done if they do not receive positive feedback from their parents.

When does stealing become a concern?

There are multiple situations that may cause concern. If any of these apply to your child, it is important to consult your child’s physician:

  • an older child that steals and does not feel bad about it
  • a child who constantly steals
  • if other behavioral problems also exist in the child

Children older than age of 3 should be confronted with any lying or stealing, but it is important to remember that most of these behaviors are part of growing up and do not represent severe problems. Each child is unique, and your child’s physician should be involved with any concerns.



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