Why Kids Lie

 Posted by on 13 March 2002 at 7:29 pm  Children, Ethics, Favorites, Honesty, Parenting, Reviews
Mar 132002

Since starting work on my various projects on the virtue of honesty, I have been voraciously reading anything and everything on the subject. So I was pleased to find Paul Ekman’s book Why Kids Lie in a used bookstore recently. The book proved to be an easy read. The writing style was clear, engaging, and even friendly. But like many psychology books written in such a breezy tone, Eckman’s book fell a bit short in the substance department.

However, the book was certainly not entirely lacking. Eckman summarizes some psychological studies that I have not seen elsewhere, such as those that investigating the factors influencing children’s choices to cheat and lie. Of particular use to parents is his discussion of the evolution of children’s attitudes towards lying throughout childhood. Most children start off with the view that lying is always wrong, then slowly allow more exceptions until dishonesty is pretty much okay whenever as a teenager. And he does offer practical advice to parents of lying children.

But two failings did stand out:

First, Eckman’s understanding of the justification for honesty as a virtue is entirely limited to the argument that dishonesty destroys trust in relationships. No other reasons for honesty are given explicit attention. However, since so many lies go undetected, this argument from trust is one of the weakest arguments for honesty available. Additionally, trust works in strange and muted ways in family relationships, because the option of scaling back or terminating a relationship is simply not available as in adult relationships. Members of a family are, for the most part, stuck with each other for better or worse for many, many years. If a child betrays a parent’s trust, that parent cannot trade in their child for a new and better one. But the (limited) power of the appeal to trust comes from exactly this possibility: that our relationships might be severely hampered or even destroyed by the discovery of a lie. As a result, where children are concerned, the argument from trust really boils down to the fact that kids avoid lying for fear of being caught and punished. This sad fact certainly highlights the need for a more complete view of why honesty is a virtue.

Second, Eckman hops, skips, and jumps through important moral arguments concerning the scope of honesty as a virtue. He asserts (without much argument) that certain types of lies are acceptable, such as those told to be polite or to protect oneself from danger. Unfortunately, Eckman’s moral distinctions are fuzzy and unclear, and thus prone to expansion. We see such expansion in his teenage son Tom’s views on morally acceptable lies, as laid out rather well in Chapter Four by Tom himself. Tom argues that any lie “told for good purpose” is acceptable, including lies to “avoid getting in trouble” (109). We also see the failure of altruism to establish honesty as a virtue in his question: “As long as [a lie] doesn’t hurt anybody, what is so wrong about it?” (109). Unlike Eckman, parents need to demarcate clear moral lines with clear reasons if they wish their kids to adhere to moral principles.

For any parent trying to cope with a deceitful child, Why Kids Lie may prove useful. But don’t get your hopes up.

Do Kids Lie More Than Adults?

 Posted by on 13 March 2002 at 4:31 pm  Children, Favorites, Honesty, Parenting
Mar 132002

Most kids lie. They lie to avoid punishment. They lie to be polite. They lie to preserve their privacy. I certainly lied all the time as a kid, particularly as a teenager.

But so many questions linger. Do people generally lie more as kids or as adults? If people lie more often as kids, as I suspect they do, why? What follows are three possible explanations.

1. Social Ineptness: Honesty often requires a great deal of skill. Conveying gratitude for an unwanted gift without being dishonest requires careful crafting of words. Fending off nosy inquiries requires experience in the sorts of answers likely to deflect attention. Children are in the process of developing such moral skills, so those skills may be only rudimentary and generally inadequate for the harder cases. As a result, dishonesty might more often seem like the only option to kids. Adults generally have more experience, more practice, and more skill in the arts of communication, so consequently they generally experience less pressure to lie.

2. Empirical Testing: Children might learn about the costs of dishonesty and benefits of honesty from their parents and teachers, but such consequences might not seem entirely real until seen or experienced firsthand. So some portion of lying in children might be attributed to empirical testing of this moral choice. And some portion of lying in children might be attributed to a lack of direct experience with the negative consequences of dishonesty. (These consequences will include those imposed by the liar’s own consciousness, by other people, and by reality.) It’s worth nothing that kids can manage to avoid some of the stupider moral principles that adults attempt to foist upon them by taking such an empirical approach to ethics.

3. Perverse Incentives: Children face punishment for their undesirable behavior in a way that adults do not. A child who lies to a parent might be grounded for a month, whereas an adult who lies to a parent cannot be forced to experience such punishment. Punishment is simply not a consequence of dishonesty for adults, unless that dishonesty is part of otherwise criminal activity. Because kids usually wish to do stuff that they parents forbid (like drinking at parties), the threat of punishment if the truth is revealed certainly encourages lying. This is not to say that adults do not face negative consequences if caught doing something wrong, but rather that kids face the additional negative consequence of parental punishment if caught.

What other aspects of a child’s life contribute to dishonesty?

Re-reading Ayn

 Posted by on 4 March 2002 at 11:26 pm  Children, Ethics, Honesty, Objectivism, Parenting, Rights
Mar 042002

I’ve been re-reading Ayn Rand’s fiction and philosophical essays in preparation for teaching the six-lecture Objectivism 101 course at the 2002 Summer Seminar of The Objectivist Center. It’s been a while since I’ve read Ayn Rand’s writings in full. Usually I’m just looking up particular paragraphs here or there to find a quote.

So it’s been particularly delightful to re-acquaint myself with her work. I particularly enjoyed reading The Fountainhead again after so many years. It has a light touch, giving it much more psychological realism than found in Atlas Shrugged. But perhaps AS is simply more direct, more blunt than The Fountainhead. Given what I regularly hear on talk radio and read in advice columns, people’s thinking is often so much worse than we tend to charitably assume.

For example, check out the second letter in this Ann Landers’ column. The woman is feeling guilty over modest punishment for her son’s stealing and wondering whether to return the stolen property. That’s silly enough already. But then Ann Landers’ suggests fixing the problem by lying, by telling the store manager that her son “took the cards by mistake.” (The phrase “to take something by mistake” indicates confusion about whether you were in possession of an object or had paid for it, not stealing!)

Call me crazy, but lying just doesn’t seem to be a good remedy for the problem of theft! Confused thinking indeed!

Update: Due to serious philosophic and moral objections, I am no longer associated with The Objectivist Center in any way, shape, or form. My reasons why can be found on my web page on The Many False Friends of Objectivism.

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