When do we learn to lie?

Pinocchio is a wonderful character. I like him because he’s mischievous, but at the same time, he has a good heart. It’s such a pity that his nose has to grow every time he tells a lie. Now that is a fascinating fact for my four-year old daughter, Sofia. We were reading Pinocchio’s book a few days ago, and we happened to have this conversation:

M: why does Pinocchio’s nose grow?
S: because he told a lie.
M: what lie did he tell?
S: he said “lie”.
In that moment I realized.
M: what is a lie?
Sofia smiled as if I’d asked a stupid question.
I thought it was important to explain what a lie was, after all Pinocchio’s nose size depended on it.
M: what colour is your pyjama?
S: it’s white.
M: now, if I said that your pyjama was yellow, that would be a lie.
S: but it’s not yellow! It’s white!
M: what did you have to eat for dinner tonight?
S: pasta.
M: if I said you had chips for dinner, that would be a lie.
S: can I have chips for dinner tomorrow?
No, it wasn’t really working. I had to try something else.
M: Yesterday I found some cereal stuck between the cushions in the sofa. Who put that there?
Sofia looked up. I bet she was going to blame one of her cuddly toys. But she raised her hand.
S: I did it!
My jaw dropped. I had to find something more serious.
M: I noticed that someone has scribbled on the kitchen wall with some pens. Who could that be?
Offence punishable with no chocolate or treats. Surely no child would admit to that.
S: Sofia did it!
I shook my head in disbelief.

My daughter is incapable of lying. Not because she’s a virtuous girl (see cereals stuck in sofa and scribbled walls), but because she doesn’t understand the concept yet. So this must be true for most young children?

It makes me wonder, how, why and when we learn to lie. Because even if we try not to, somehow we do it, we lie even to ourselves at times, don’t you think?

16 thoughts on “When do we learn to lie?”

  1. I had five bright kids, and from my experience the age children start lying at and can normally understand the concept is 3 upwards. My youngest was a particularly advanced child who started talking very early and then never shut up. He was an exception to this rule and told me his first lie at 18 months. A face, sink and bathroom covered with toothpaste, toothpaste in his hands behind his back. “No Mummy I have not been playing with the toothpaste.” No I did not punish him, just cleaned him and the bathroom up. His siblings would take him out and feed him bad things like jam doughnuts and then tell him not to tell Mum. So a face covered with jam would deny eating jam doughnuts with his brother and sisters.

    • This is so funny, Giselle. Your 18 month old boy was very advanced for his age and an extremely bright kid. What is interesting is that, even though he lied, when his face was covered in toothpaste, I wonder if he knew that he was doing something ‘wrong’, if you know what I mean. Like when he had his face covered in jam… How sweet, I can just picture him 🙂

  2. Hilarious story! I was told that being able to lie shows intelligence in growing up children as they realise they can see the world from another perspective or something along those lines. I am sure S won’t take long to start coming up with fibs in due course, I certainly remember things I lied about when I was younger (but obviously knew it was a bad thing to lie).

  3. I don’t have kids, but as a former kid I must say that sometimes you lie because you’re afraid of what you did.
    While growing up, you lie to someone else not to let him/her down, or you lie to yourself because you can’t face the reality.

    Lies are human facts, we can’t escape them.
    Unfortunately for you, my dear Martina, Sofia one day will tell you her first big lie… and probably that will be the beginning of her teenage years … good luck 😛

    • I know, Stefania, that sooner or later, she will lie. In fact, if I had to wait until she was a teenager, I’d be quite lucky. I think she will tell a few fibs before then 🙂

      It’s just that until we were reading the Pinocchio story, and until I realized that she had no concept of lying, it had never occurred to me that people didn’t know what lying was. I guess I was struck by her innocence and simplicity. And later I just thought how easier everything would be if we could just be truthful all the time.

  4. I don’t have kids and don’t know the answer, but somewhat related to this is a documentary I recently saw where studies show that children as early as 3 months old know the difference between right and wrong. Even though a 3 month old baby can’t speak and has no motor-control, they can tell by their eyes, since they will stare longer at the ‘good’ teddybear that they want instead of the ‘bad teddybear.

    Lying could come also from self-preservation. When I was little, I was threatened with a whipping if I was bad. I didn’t know what a whipping was, so I assumed it was when you were wrapped up like a mummy and tied by your feet hanging upside down. I didn’t want that to happen to me, and it never did! Either because I didn’t lie, or did lie at the right time!

    • Whipping = being wrapped up like a mummy and tied by your feet hanging upside down? That’s a fertile imagination RJ! Cool.

      I was punished once as a child, because my younger sister lied about me doing something wrong (namely calling my cousin by his nickname.) She was the one who did the bad deed!
      Lies can have a terrible effect on innocent people too. Sister, if you’re reading this now, it’s time to apologize 😉

  5. Interesting subject Martina! I just read it after I saw a film on TV that was called “The invention of lying”. What a coincidence!
    It was a story of a man that invents lying in a world where people only tell the truth. It is quite interesting. The invention happened as some kind of chemical reaction of the brain when this man was under a lot of psycological pressure and dipression. Also, it was interesting that after he understood that he could tell something that isn’t, he felt that he could do anything he wanted. He is described as being more inteligent and smart than the other people. Compared to him all other people seemed silly. So I guess lying is bad but without it we wouldn’t have gone that far either.

  6. Hi Martina,

    great topic again 🙂

    How I’d love we could keep the child inside forever 🙂

    Yes, we lie – but is all lying damnable?

    Sometimes we lie when we do not want to hurt someones feelings (“oh, what a great present you gave me” even if it is something we’d never want to have) or if we don’t want to admit we simply forgot to answer an e-mail (“oh sorry, I was away” – maybe thinking of a trip we’d rather be instead of the need to read/answer yet another pile of e-mails) …
    … those I consider white lies that do not hurt anyone just annoy if detected.

    Maybe it comes with the atmosphere in which we are growing up – relaxed and understanding in which you can be yourself and make own mistakes without being laughed at is good, otherwise you may need to “fabricate” from time to time and trust others won’t see you through 😉

    … and hey, there is a whole industry – the advertisement – making use of people’s rationality/foolishness to trust everything they are being told. It is not necessarily a lie, but it is not always complete truth.

    … so where was I ?

    Oh yes, an interesting topic indeed!



    • Very interesting issues, you raise Jitka.
      I was actually trying to think if I could write a fiction book where everything (my characters and plot) revolved around the truth.
      There would be no lies, no falsehood, no untruths.
      I think it would be impossible to come up with a good story. It would make for a really boring read, probably.

  7. A lovely story to illustrate an interesting and complex topic; at some point in our development, we all seem to work out that untruths can save ourselves and others from hurt. Or, of course, be used for more devious purposes. I love the concept of when do we lie to ourselves, and why…

  8. Apparently the conventional wisdom is that kids don’t intentionally do anything naughty until they are five – before that it is all testing boundaries and discovering new things. My three year old will blame stuff on her older sister but only I think because she is copying.
    They say bright kids will lie – there is that experiment where they are left in a room with a toy and told not to turn round when the adult goes out. The brightest kids will turn round and then lie about it later.
    I think when we use the word “lie” there is pre-meditation involved and it is perceived as a negative thing – even though sometimes it is done to save someone’s feelings. Fine if it’s something like a present if they never find out – not so good if you are at some point going to get caught out!

  9. Martina, what a really interesting post! I would never have thought of it. Not having children, I suppose I wouldn’t. But still it is very interesting to me. My mother told a cute story about my three older siblings. The youngest was what you might call “an early liar.” He was always claiming that the two older siblings had hit him or pushed him. So she watched out the window one day and saw him throw himself on the ground, when the other two were nowhere near, and started shouting, “Mama, Jimmy hit me and knocked me down!”

    • Oh Jean, you made me laugh! I am trying to picture your sibling doing just that.
      What an incredible thing to do. I wonder what drove him to such behaviour. Maybe he was feeling left out, perhaps the two older siblings didn’t let him play with them and it was his way to get revenge? Who knows…

      As the youngest sister, it would be interesting to see how your brother, the youngest of the three changed as he grew up. I bet he doesn’t lie anymore, not to that extent, I mean 😉 I always wonder if our behaviour as children is a predictor of what we become as adults.

      I knew a little boy when I was a child who hated animals and always tried to kick my dog. And he’s not a very nice person now. And yet, my younger cousin, who liked to chase stray cats down the street turned out OK. Who knows? Can we outgrow our faults? That could make another interesting blog post…


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