The Truth About Lying
By Charles Rush
October 18, 2009
Leviticus 19: 11 and Proverbs 6: 16-19 and Ephesians 4: 22-25
(mp3, 8.7Mb) – apologies for the poor audio quality ]
w that my children are adults, they love to occasionally rib me with the ‘sum total of what you didn’t know about High School parties in Summit’. One of my sons and I were splitting wood recently when I asked him, ‘that night you were stopped by the cops when they broke up the party at the Baker’s house’, who actually drove you to the party?’ ‘Brad Ettinger’ said my son. ‘Who brought the half gallon of Finlandia Vodka’. ‘Brad Ettinger’ said my son.
confirmation on a phenomenon I witnessed a dozen times when my kids were still
in school. I was remembering the day after the party when the cops had decided
to drop any charges and simply issued a stern warning to the boys. I was
fielding calls from other ‘concerned parents’, including Mrs. Ettinger. The boys story was that they hadn’t actually been
to any party but were driving up to a party when the police stopped them ‘out
of the blue’ and detained them ‘for no reason at all’. The story line was
somewhat pathetic in its lack of creativity. It wasn’t plausible, let alone convincing.
What was more
remarkable to me was running into Mrs. Ettinger the
next day at another child’s soccer game. She mounted a rather vigorous defense
of her son’s innocence when I interrupted her to ask, ‘why do you think his
story is true’. Immediately she said ‘Oh, he wouldn’t lie to me and I could
tell it if he did.’ At the time, I was fairly positive that her son was in the
middle of the cabal, but certainly by the time my child #3 was eligible for
arrest, I had determined that I would not ever get the truth in these
situations because everyone was lying. What struck me was that Mrs. Ettinger is a pretty tough attorney, who spends most of her
professional career teasing out ‘lies’ from ‘damned lies’ and why in the world
would she presume that junior would be a paragon of honesty. In fact, by this
point, I’d had so many conversations like this that I was beginning to wonder
about my generation’s odd naiveté about truthfulness and our teens.
on the subject is somewhat sobering. 96% of children lie to their parents,
though I’m quite sure that your children are in that 4% minority.[i]
But in the Rush household, once again we
beat the national average- 100% of my children lied to me, including all of my
We adults can’t tell when children
are lying either. When you actually do studies and you have a child tell a lie
and something true, adults are no better able to predict the truth from the
lie, than flipping a coin. By the way, the same thing is true for parents with
their own children, only half the time can you tell the difference- not very
good. Worse, the police rank even lower in their ability to sort truth from
fiction. In fact, there is only one group of people that are better than the
rest of us at telling who is lying and they are…. Teachers.
About 60% of the time they guess right, slightly better than flipping a coin.
They’ve heard it all. I remember my first day of substitute teaching, right out
of college, hadn’t even gotten the blackboard erased than one young man in my
Algebra class handed me a note that he was to be excused to see his
gynecologist, signed by his mother, and gynecologist was misspelled. This is
the daily gauntlet run by our educators.
We don’t have a new moral crisis on
our hands, in case you are fretting. Children are more likely than adults to
think that lying is wrong and they are more likely than adults to disapprove of
people who lie. But that does not mean that they don’t do it. In the studies
that have tracked kids in their homes, observed unobtrusively over an extended
period of time, four year olds lie, on average, about once ever
other hour. Six year olds lie about once an hour. As you parents of young
children might surmise, these lies are overwhelmingly to cover up some
You might ask
why they do this. The lions share of the answer is… that we teach them. Children, like all
higher primates, are very sophisticated emotionally. They are able to observe
the complexity of our behavior and mimic it, even if they can’t entirely think
like we think. They are imprinted with our complex messages, even if they can’t
analyze the various layers of complexity. And most of us are very good
Like the phone
call right at dinner hour. “You want Charles Rush? May I ask whose calling? A survey on health care? Mr. Rush isn’t here right now, can
I have him call you. No, he won’t be here tomorrow either. He’s taking care of
his mother who is very sick. Mrs. Rush? She actually left Mr. Rush, yes, very
sad.’ They take all daily techniques of evasion, even as we don’t these matter
all that much because these aren’t the ‘real issue’.
Or the polite lies that grease the social wheel of nearly every family
reunion… “Oh Mom, you shouldn’t have. Of course I love it. A pink golf hat, the
only color I don’t have. The guys will love it at Baultisrol.
It’s the rage” (toss hat) And they watch you on the
receiving end of this as well. “Oh look, my nephew Chuck, have you lost some weight? I could swear you have. Tell me the truth.”
And we get them
involved too. “Annie, tell Aunt Rita how much you love her fruit cake at
Christmas… It’s sooo good.” If you come from a
venerable Southern family like mine, you can spend most of the evening at a
family reunion engaged in almost nothing other than polite lies.
course, don’t think of them as lies exactly. They are just being “politely
disingenuous”. What we are modeling for the next generation is the way that we
use lies to smooth over potential turmoil. We are modeling for them our belief
that social savoir faire is more fundamental than honesty. And they learn it.
Moral of the story from a kids point of view: good
lies help avoid conflict in the family and we all get along better.
important part of the answer is that lying is part of a child’s normal process
of maturation, so it is actually a good thing with notable qualifications. You
can chart it in the pre-school years. It takes a certain maturity to be able to
recognize what is true, put that in brackets for the time being, and invent
another story that is plausible. This is an advanced skill in humans,
qualitatively different from almost all other species. It is what makes us such
good hunters. We can read others, predict what they are likely to do, and set a
trap for them to fall into and it has been working for us from hunting the
wooly Mamouth right down to the guy dealing three card Monty in Washington Square Park. It helps us to
position ourselves in the dating process so that we appear to be more
attractive than we are.
Dr. Victoria Talwar at McGill University has been doing studies with
pre-school kids in which she has children guess what a sound is and if they get
it right, they get a little prize. She does this a few times, so the kids get
the idea. Then she introduces a particularly difficult sound to recognize, say
the sound of an oboe. The researcher stops for a second, explains that she
needs to leave the room, and tells the child not to look in the box on her desk
to see what item is that makes the sound. When you do that experiment with
three year olds, only about a third of them will actually get up and look in
the box when they are left alone in the room. And if the researcher comes back
and asks them if they looked in the box, about half of them will confess that
But among 4
year olds, over 80% just have to peek in that box and when the researcher
returns to the room, about 80% of those who peeked into the box will lie and
says that they didn’t. By the way, this percentage rises down the birth order.
Kids with older brothers and sisters are better liars earlier than first born
And there is
one thing I learned that I wished I’d had a better handle on when I was
actively parenting. Children don’t think about lies like adults do, which is
also related to their emotional and psychological process of maturation.
always have a nuanced view of lying. No, lying is not a good thing, but intent
matters quite a bit to adults. Lying about your assets in a divorce is one
thing but lying to your brother-in-law to spare your wife some unnecessary
burden is another matter altogether. One is wrong, the other is well, not a good thing, but you intend a good thing even if you
handled it in a compromised manner.
have that maturation of nuance. The issue of lying is much more centered around the accurate transmission of factual data. How many
times have you been registering your child for summer camp and the camp asks
what grade he is in. You are answering the question
and you say 2nd grade, even though he is in 1st grade,
but you know that he will do better emotionally with older kids at camp. Your
child overhears your answer and has an emotionally charged response over this mis-information. ‘Mom, I’m in 1st grade’ and you,
more or less, dismiss them and their moral protest. We are projecting our
sophisticated moral approach on their simpler emotional level and we are missing
an opportunity to help our children develop a healthy respect for honesty
else, we can communicate with them more effectively if we understand better
their mind set. For example, if you ask your pre-schooler
to tell you the truth or promise to tell you the truth before you ask a direct
question, that alone cuts down on lying 25% of the time.
But Professor Talwar did something else in her experiments with the kids
that peeked in the box and lied about it to the researcher. She took one group
of kids and read them the story of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf”, a visceral little
tale in which a boy repeatedly lies and eventually when he needs help for real,
it is not there and he dies along with his beloved sheep, as they really are
eaten by the wolf.
another group of kids and read them the story of George Washington cutting down
the Cherry tree. After little George was asked whether he had lies about
cutting down the cherry tree, he confesses that he did lie, and his father
tells him that he is happier with the truth from his son than having a 1000 of
his beloved cherry trees.
do you think the telling of these stories made? Which of these stories is more
effective? The Boy Who Cried Wolf? George Washington and the
Cherry Tree? The Boy who cried world doesn’t alter behavior at all,
despite the awful consequences that the moral of the story communicates.
But the second
story, of George Washington? It reduces lying 50% among girls and 75% among
boys. What accounts for the difference? It is related to our children’s
development. Until our children are in Middle School, they have a very limited
ability to understand the nuance of lying. In their mind, it is simply wrong
and it is subject to punishment. They are not really able to understand that
there are social consequences to lying- for example that my lying might hurt
other people without me realizing it. It is true that we teach this moral from
early on, but they don’t really interiorize it until much later.
The pre-schooler’s in this experiment have just lied and they
know that they are subject to punishment. Avoiding punishment is upper in their mind, so the moral of the first story (The
Boy Who Cried Wolf) simply reminds them that they are subject to punishment,
like the boy in the story, so it makes little impact on their response.
story makes a point of the adult reaching out to the child and assuring them
that the relationship with the parent is not in jeopardy because of the
infraction. Furthermore, it makes a positive point that lifts up the intrinsic
integrity of ‘truth telling’. We adults underestimate the degree to which
children tell us what we want to hear in order to maintain equilibrium in the
relationship. The moral of the second story tells the children how to make
things right again and little George gets praised for doing the right thing.[ii]
[As to why this
difference affects boys so much more than girls is probably speaks volumes
about the different ways we socialize girls and boys].
Another way of
getting at the importance of equilibrium with their parents for kids, Bella DePaulo of UCal Santa Barbara
started asking adults about the biggest lies that they told in their lives. She
was expecting some real whoppers and she got a few. But what struck her was the
number of seemingly small lies that people reported that they told when they
were kids. She was disappointed and somewhat bored by the process but she
gradually came to realize that these lies, small as they were in the big scheme
of things, were directly related to the child’s sense of themselves (“that they
were good and did the right thing”) and their new identity in relationship with
their parents. [iii]
I am hoping that the future of this
research looks at the ways that we communicate verbally and subliminally with
our children on the equilibrium they have with us because I suspect that this
is significant and becoming more so because each generation seems to be even
more involved with the next. I suspect that, far more than we’d like to admit,
we have an identity image for our children- who we think they are and who we
think they should become- and we communicate that image to them more
aggressively and extensively than we realize. Our children not only internalize
this image, they are able to filter through the myriad of mixed communications
that we send and extrapolate out what this core identity is. They get the mixed
messages that we want them to be successful and altruistic, that we want them
to win and to care, and they interiorize the hierarchy of our values, and they
reflect back to us the image that they think will please us, far more than we
realize. (e.g. We want them mostly to be
successful and a little bit altruistic; mostly we want them to be winners and
to exhibit some care of others;)They certainly cannot articulate this duplicity
and how could they when we can’t, but keeping equilibrium is one of those
shared family values that has a way of unwittingly encouraging hypocrisy that
we don’t entirely intend. We are sophisticated creatures like this.
As parents are
all too familiar, the real challenge with lying is that it can become a winning
strategy and if it works for children, they are most likely to continue and
extend it. The research supports this. Far from growing out of a ‘lying phase’,
our children’s early experimentation, needs to be
attended to constructively and intentionally.
want our children to be ‘real’. We want them to live out of a positive
self-image that is who they really are. We want them to be ‘honest’, to be
themselves and to become who they are meant to be. In
the Gospel of John the bible puts it this way, “You shall know the Truth and
the Truth shall set you free”. You are
realizing your unique potential, not living out of borrowed identity to please
others, not falsifying yourself because you hate yourself. You live out of your
positive spiritual energy.
And we know
what we don’t want. In the 50’s, there was a character on “Leave it to Beaver”
named Eddie Haskell. He was one of the best characters in all of TV. Eddie was
a consummate butt kisser. He was always giving Mother’s these caricatured
compliments to butter them up. He presented himself to Dad’s as the model team
player, always reflecting back to them, the things he thought they wanted to
hear. As soon as Adults were out of range, Eddie was forever cooking up some
nefarious scheme that involved everyone in a complicated plot that got them all
He was very
funny because he was a caricature. But in the real world, our children have
subtle and beguiling identities that tempt them this way and that. On their best days, they are anxious about
themselves and worried that they should trade who they really are for what they
see in figures from pop culture, from metropolitan New York, from reality TV,
from their peers.
around Middle School, we start to get the other important impulse to lie that
kicks in and will follow them for the rest of their life. Keeping
Secrets. That is what friends do, for better and worse.
A few years
ago, at a fraternity reunion, I learned that one of my fraternity brothers was
representing another fraternity brother in a medical malpractice suit. I asked
him what that was like and he said to me, ‘What is new. I’ve been covering his
backside for 25 years. He was innocent but it brought back, like it was
yesterday, an image of the two of us, with another fraternity brother, also a
lawyer, walking into the Dean’s office at Wake Forest for the third time. We
had our ties and sport coats and loafers- looking our clean cut best to explain
another social event that went awry- trying to change the subject at every
opening to mention our continued interest in liberal arts education and the
values that the college was hoping to instill in us.
For the most
part, it has been a righteous brotherhood, but the truth is that if push came
to shove, we sure would cover for each other in a big way and we already have.
And we know that this is how our teenagers are capable of such astonishingly
poor judgment. They are covering for each other, cut off from any of the wisdom
that our generation might have to impart in a situation of crisis. And we know
that this is how our young adults are capable of such astonishingly poor
judgment like the traders at Enron 8 years ago that were caught bidding up the
price of energy for a quick profit, acting like it was the 25 guys at the Enron
trading desk versus the entire world and the only concern they had was for each
In the battle
of the competing values of truth v. loyalty, loyalty wins almost all of the
time. So much so that I’ve often thought this should have been the story of the
Fall in the Bible, how we got cut off from God.
“Legends of the Fall” has a final scene that would fit
that bill nicely. The movie is a long tale of a Father and sons over decades.
They become estranged, each set off in different
directions, and eventually a complex plot brings them back together. They are
now distant. They are bitter towards each other. They carry those resentments
that brothers and fathers can carry.
Now, the father
is very old and near death. One of his sons is on the run from the police and
he returns home to his Dad because he simply must. The police are hot on his
trail and arrive at the Father’s house looking for the son.
The other son
arrives to see the police, his father, his brother.
This son is now the Governor of the state and has a powerful role to play. He
tries to intervene and brook a compromise but it doesn’t work and in an instant
violence breaks out.
protecting his son, even though he is estranged from him, pulls a gun and
shoots one of the officers. The two brothers only have a second to respond.
Both of them pull weapons- even the Governor- and they kill the other officers.
Everyone is dead and the two sons are standing there in the silence with their
You just know
that they will never be reunited. And you also know that they will mutually
cover for each other and not a trace of this murder will ever come to light.
They stand there in the silence. They will not be reconciled. But they will be
forever bonded in their mutual guilt for a crime they will cover. It is not
love but it looks weirdly like love. Certainly the bonds that bind them are as
tight as profound love, only the effect is as isolating for each of them as
deep love is reciprocally uniting.
like that. No matter how effective it might be, spiritually, we don’t want to
be cut off from each other, we don’t want to be cut off from ourselves,
we don’t want to be cut off from God. We don’t want to be simply a made member
of the Cosa Nostra, bound principally by our mutual
We want to be
who we are, surrounded by others that give us permission to explore and develop
who we are meant to become in all the fullness that God promises us in this
life. We want to know and live the real life of love. My brothers and sisters,
there is so much more. Don’t settle for too little. You are more important than
that. You shall know the Truth and the Truth shall set you free. Amen.
See the chapter “Why Kids Lie” in Nutureshock
by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (New York: 12
Books, 2009), pp. 73-90.
[ii] Ibid. pp. 86-87.
[iii] Ibid. pp. 91.
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