Children's Lying


In this New York Times article, author Alex Stone reports on the surprising outcomes of a study of young people’s dishonesty. Researchers told children not to look at a hidden toy and then made an excuse to leave the room. Within seconds of being left alone, the vast majority of children peeked at the toy. When the researcher returned, a significant number who had looked said they hadn’t. “At least a third of 2-year-olds, half of 3-year-olds, and 80 percent or more of children 4 and older will deny their transgression,” says Stone, “regardless of their gender, race, or family’s religion.” What’s more, none of the adults who spoke with children afterward, even their parents, were able to consistently tell who was lying and who was telling the truth.

A number of studies conducted by developmental psychologist Michael Lewis and others have reached these conclusions:

Toddlers who lie have higher verbal I.Q.s than those who tell the truth (as much as 10 points higher).

Children who don’t peek at the toy have the highest I.Q.s of all – but there are very few of them.

Children who lie have better executive functioning skills (the ability to control impulses and stay focused on a task) and theory of mind (the ability to see the world through other people’s eyes) than those who don’t.

Children with autism and ADHD have trouble lying.

Interestingly, teaching children executive functioning skills and theory of mind makes them more likely to lie.

All this is intriguing, but parents and teachers want children to be honest – which can be crucial in cases involving maltreatment or abuse – and to grow up to be reliable and decent people. What makes children more likely to tell the truth? Here’s what researchers have found:

• Carrots work better than sticks. Harsh punishments like spanking do little to deter lying and may be counterproductive. In one study in Africa, children in a school practicing corporal punishment were more likely to lie and were far better at it than those attending a school that used gentler methods.  

• Witnessing other children being praised for honesty tends to produce more honest behavior. So do non-punitive appeals – “If you tell the truth, I will be really pleased with you.”

• Eliciting an up-front promise to tell the truth has been shown to work. Getting children to make a verbal commitment not to lie was even effective in the toy-peeking experiment.

• Positive stories work better than negative and scary ones. Reading about George Washington telling the truth about cutting down the cherry tree is more effective than reading “Pinocchio” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” It’s about positive messaging – emphasizing the benefits of honesty rather than the problems caused by dishonesty.

• Bribery can work – as long as the financial reward for honesty is considerably bigger than the perceived benefit of lying. Psychologist Kang Lee, who conducted an experiment in which children got different rewards for each kind of behavior, found there was a sharp increase in honest behavior when the reward reached a certain point. “Their decision to lie is very tactical,” he said. “Children are thinking in terms of the ratio.”


“Is Your Child Lying to You? That’s Good” by Alex Stone in The New York Times, January 7, 2018,


Marshall Memo 718 January 8, 2018