It was with wide eyes and discernible worry that a client’s mom told me of her child’s newest behavior: lying.
Parents are often concerned when their child lies, asking, “Is this normal?” With the development of a child’s brain comes the ability to lie. Thus, children can start bending the truth at a very young age.
The first developmental level of lying, called primary lies, emerges around 2–3 years of age when children begin to be able to deliberately make untrue statements. For example, two year-olds often engage in pretend play, such as pretending to drink tea from toy tea cups during a pretend tea party. As this ability to pretend emerges, so does the ability to deliberately make untrue statements such as "I didn’t do it.” But toddlers don't take into consideration the mental state of the listener when they tell these lies, making it easy for adults to tell when a child is lying. If the carpet wasn’t wet two minutes ago, parents can tell that their child is trying to deceive them.
Secondary lies emerge around the age of four and require children to understand that the listener does not know the truth and thus is susceptible to lies. Things get more difficult as children reach the fourth year of life. At this stage, they take into consideration what the other person knows and believes. Parents still have a bit of an advantage, because this age range tends to lose track of what they've said and what has to be true for their lie to work. So, they may insist that their brother spilled the ‘tea’ because they forget that their brother is not home.
Around 7–8 years of age, children begin to tell tertiary lies where they are able to conceal their lies by maintaining consistency between them. In this age group, children will tell more lies to test what they can get away with. You’ll hear lies related to school, classes, homework, teachers, and friends. Maintaining the lies may still be difficult, even though kids are better at concealing them. But thankfully, most lies— such as “We didn't get any science homework today"—are relatively easy to detect.
Around the ages of 9 to 12, children are establishing an identity; this means that lying may not be a part of who they consider themselves to be. They are also becoming more adept at maintaining lies and are more sensitive to the consequences of their actions. At this age, kids may have strong feelings of guilt after lying. Longer conversations about honesty are needed, as there will be "white lie" moments when some dishonesty is socially acceptable in order to be polite or to spare another person's feelings. When situations like this arise, be straightforward with your child to avoid sending mixed messages.
To answer the question, yes, lying through a child’s development is “normal.” But there are steps you can take to encourage honesty. Look for Part 2 to get helpful tips!
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Facts for Families: Children and Lying. November 2004.
Evans, A. D., & Lee, K. (2013). Emergence of Lying in Very Young Children. Developmental Psychology, (10), 1958.
Victoria Talwar, & Kang Lee. (2008). Social and Cognitive Correlates of Children’s Lying Behavior. Child Development, (4), 866.