Why Do Kids Lie?
Lying is not confined to children, and the kinds of lies that kids tell are not very different from those of adults. In one study, Dr. DePaulo found that when 77 college students kept a diary of their lives, only one reported going for a week without lying. What's more, Dr. DePaulo found that most lies were "self-oriented." With a self-oriented lie, the liar's goal is to make himself appear better than he is; to protect himself from embarrassment, punishment, or shame; or to get what he wants. For example, a self-oriented lie might sound like "Sorry I'm late. I got stuck in traffic" (adult version) or "It wasn't my fault. The dog ate my homework" (child version). In contrast, "other-oriented lies" are the ones we tell for someone else's sake. For example: "You don't look like you've put on weight!" (adult version) or "This is a great present, Grandma" (child version).
Ultimately, both self-oriented and other-oriented lies are inspired by the same impulse -- to assuage worry, duck conflict, skirt unpleasantness, and avoid hurting someone's feelings. In essence, they make the liar feel better by regulating his own emotions and mood. But we cleanse other-oriented lies of any stigma by speaking of them as "white lies."
Children learn early to tell white lies. In a recent study of 3- to 7-year-olds conducted at Queen's University in Ontario, researchers found that most of the participants were capable of both verbal and nonverbal deception. In the study, the kids were asked to take a photo of an adult. Before the picture was taken, the adult, whose nose bore a visible mark, asked, "Do I look okay for the photo?" There was also a control group, in which the question was asked but the adult's nose bore no mark. Not only did most of the kids in the marked-nose group assert that the adult looked fine, but their performance was so successful that college students who were shown films of both groups couldn't tell the difference between the liars and the truth tellers.