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Nurture Shock – Why Kids Lie

“People simply cannot tell when kids are lying,” authors Bronson and Merryman argue.  Despite parents’ claims otherwise, research actually reveals the opposite is true.  And that’s not the only conventional wisdom Nurture Shock disputes.

“Children learn to lie much earlier than we presumed…By their fourth birthday, almost all kids will start experimenting with lying.”  This is problematic because it’s often viewed as innocent and as a result not addressed.  Parents are often advised to let it go because they’ll grow out of it.  However, Bronson and Merryman maintain, “The truth is, kids grow into it.”

Apparently, studies have shown that a six-year-old will lie twice as often as a four-year-old.  Most lies are told to cover up mistakes, and according to Bronson and Merryman, this behavior is also usually dismissed by parents, as it is expected.  Therefore, from the kid’s point of view, unless an extra penalty is issued for the cover-up, the behavior will be repeated.

Lying is actually a highly sophisticated skill.  Essentially, Nurture Shock points out that in many cases the smarter your child the sooner he will start to lie because it “demands both advanced cognitive development and social skills that honesty simply doesn’t require.”  Longitudinal studies reveal that while a six-year-old who lies frequently could grow out of it, she usually doesn’t because it’s proven such a successful strategy.

And it’s not entirely her fault.  Nurture Shock asks parents to think about the role they are playing in creating kids who lie.  For example, consider the ways we teach our children to be polite, such as masking their true feelings when opening a present.  Couple that with your children seeing you comfortable with disingenuous behavior in social settings and they too become insincere.  According to Bronson and Merryman, what they ultimately learn is that “honesty only creates conflict, while dishonesty is an easy way to avoid conflict.”

Nurture Shock explains the problem is that kids “start out thinking all deception – of any sort – is bad and then slowly realize that some types are okay.”  Therefore, if you want your child to learn to be truthful then it must begin with you, no longer telling the telemarketer that you’re busy when you’re not.  Then, you need to change the way you react to lies; in other words, you need to do more than simply remove the threat of punishment to extract the truth because kids will still be cautious.  You need to explain to your child that telling the truth will make you happy, for this is what children always aspire to do.

Finally, you need to tackle tattling head on and not in the way you might think.  Nurture Shock explains when grownups encourage children to not tattle, it is in the hope that they will stop kids from outright lying or tattling to get someone in trouble.  But research actually shows that “nine out of ten times a kid runs up to a parent to tell, that kid is being completely honest.  And while it might seem to a parent that tattling is incessant, to a child that’s not the case, there were fourteen other instances when he was wronged and did not run to the parent for aid.”  Therefore, Bronson and Merryman explain that your child hears, “Stop bringing me your problems!”  So be honest with yourself and admit this isn’t the message you want them to hear.  Instead, tell them how you really feel about tattling and perhaps the truth will follow.


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Check out Victoria Winterhalter’s other blog, Befriending Forty (, and find out what happens when the person you thought you’d be meets the person you actually became.

Victoria Winterhalter is a mother, teacher, reader, and writer on the education and environment beats for RFM. She has been with RFM since its founding in 2009 and has contributed photos and written numerous articles on education, parenting, and family travel.

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