• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Monday 14th April, 2008

Liars, learned lies – and statistics

All but two percent of teenagers in a recent US study admitted lying to their parents. And out of 36 possible topics – including drug use, dating, and their friends – the average teen lied about 12 of them. The research, conducted by Nancy Darling of Oberlin College, Ohio was featured in an article in New York Magazine called Learning to Lie, alongside work by Victoria Talwar of McGill University in Canada. It may not come as a surprise that adolescents lie to their parents. But Darling and Talwar believe they have learned a great deal about why teens lie and their feelings about it. So, for example, while 98 percent admit that they lie, 98 percent also think that lying is morally wrong. Young children are frequent fibbers. And media coverage of the work has been quick to seize on the over-simplified statistics that four-year-olds tell a lie once every two hours and six-year-olds once every hour and a half. Young children most often lie to avoid punishment, but reasons for lying become more complex as they grow up. Lying is a way to increase power, manipulate peers, get attention, and smooth social relationships. If a child is still lying a great deal at age seven, and it has become a successful strategy for handling social situations, then he or she is likely to continue to lie a lot throughout childhood according to Talwar’s research. The article reviews the types of parenting which, according to research, tends to discourage lying.

  • Talking to children about the value of honesty tends to promote honesty. The article describes a study in which children tended to confess to lying after hearing a story about how George Washington won his father’s favor after admitting to chopping down his cherry tree.
  • Setting a few rules that are explained to children and consistently enforced promotes honesty.Parents who are very permissive or set many rules without enforcing them tend to have children who are often deceitful. By contrast, the children of parents who talk a lot with their kids, are clear about rules, but also leave room for them to make their own decisions lie less often.
The second point sounds easier than it is in practice. According to Darling’s research, families with more honest children tended to be families who argued more. While most parents find these types of exchanges unpleasant, work by Tabitha Holmes of the State University of New York suggests that children often value the opportunity to hear their parents’ point of view and think that fighting actually strengthens their relationship with them.• Summary of “Learning to Lie” by Po Bronson in New York Magazine, February 10, 2008.

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