Why young children can’t lie

As many of you may know, I study a BSc at Bournemouth University. Lately, we have been learning about developmental psychology- which I have to say has been one of my favourite topics so far! I learnt something interesting the other day, which I thought I would share with you all: why young children can’t lie? And why can they learn to do so later on?

The Frugal Frenchie

The answer can be found in a child’s theory of mind. The theory of mind is essentially the ability to realise that not everybody believes, desires and feels the same way you do (Premack & Woodruff, 1978). It’s also useful for predicting and explaining other people’s behaviours and allowing us to be empathic.

Theory of mind develops gradually throughout childhood, which means that some children may be at higher or more developed levels of theory of mind than others.

Why young children can't lie

Here are some examples to show you what I mean:

  • 3-4 months: social perception
    • You may be surprised, but here, children can already start showing signs of theory of mind.
    • They are capable of following another person’s gaze, which shows that they are aware of what other’s are looking at and that it’s not the same as them
  • 12 months: social referencing
    • For those of you with children, let me know in the comments if you’ve noticed this around this age!
    • An experiment called the visual cliff, shows this clearly
      • A child will make a judgement or a decision, based on the reactions of others
  • 12-18 months: intentions
    • In experiments, children around this age started to understand peoples’ intentions
      • E.g. When an experimenter was trying but failing to put a key on a hook, the child would do it correctly, rather than imitating the experimenter, as they instead their intention (Meltzhoff, 1995)

As you can see, the development is slow at first, but when children they get older, they’ll start to show obvious signs for the consideration of others, such as pretend play with toys, or showing empathy.

Why young children can't lie

Before this point, however, children are unable to understand that others know different facts or think different things. If a child knows that they stole the biscuits or drew crayon on the wall, they will assume that the parent will know this too, so they cannot lie.

Those tricksy puppets…. in an experiment by Peskin (1992), they asked 3-5 year olds, with a friendly puppet, what their favourite sticker was. Of course, with no motive to lie, they told the truth. The children were then told that a naughty puppet would come along and steal their favourite sticker. Sadly, when the naughty puppet asked the 3 (and 50% of the 4) year olds, their lack of theory of mind showed, as they told the naughty puppet their favourite sticker and it got stolen.

So there we have it! After the ages of around 3 years old, children can start to lie as their theory of mind becomes more developed, and they realise that you don’t know everything they do!

What do you think? Is this surprising? Let me know your thoughts!

3 Replies to “Why young children can’t lie”

  1. This is really interesting. As a teacher, I see that some children find showing empathy and consideration for others really difficult! Loved reading this post – a lot of food for thought for me 🙂

    1. Aw thank you so much!
      I’m glad you learnt something and found it interesting!
      Children definitely do develop differently and show different extents of understanding and showing certain emotions.
      Thanks for your comment xx

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