Lying is something children learn early. In fact, many scientists now believe that babies have a much more sophisticated relationship to falsehood than had been suspected. "Learning to deceive is an indispensable aspect of socialization," says Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., a visiting professor of psychology at the University of California Santa Barbara and a pioneer in the field of deception. "To communicate successfully, you must know how to present yourself and what impression your facial expression is going to make on others. Kids learn the relationship between what they're feeling and showing and how that can be manipulated." Adds Anat Hoffman, a child therapist and former vice president of the Harlem Family Institute in New York City: "You learn to read people. This starts before you can talk. You learn to smile because you want Mommy to smile at you. It doesn't mean you're happy; it means you want to elicit a warm reaction from Mommy."
"Children make statements with their lies," says New York City-based psychoanalyst Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Ph.D. "They can't tell you something is wrong; they engage in this behavior to get your attention. If you give them the wrong kind of attention and say, 'You little so-and-so!,' you compound the problem. You need to say, 'What is the matter that you had to steal or you had to lie?'"
The lie itself isn't the fundamental problem. You need to discover why your child is lying. Some experts believe that in our efforts to teach our kids not to lie, we overwhelm their capacity to tell the truth. "If you give young children a task that's too hard and they fail, they're probably going to lie," says Hoffman. "This happens a lot in school. Kids fail and lie about the results, or they say, 'It's no big deal.'" The latter may seem less reprehensible, but it's a self-destructive lie because those kids suffer not only the humiliation of failing but also the sadness of covering up feelings. The final ignominy is having to endure classmates' reactions. Few epithets are more shaming and enraging than the bald accusation, "Liar!"