026: Is my child lying to me? (Hint: Yes!)

Your kids don’t lie, right?  And if they did, you’d be able to tell, right?
News flash: they do.  And you probably can’t.
Dr. Kang Lee – who is one of the world’s experts in lying – tells us why children lie, how we can (try to) reduce the incidence of lying, and how we should handle it when we catch our children in a lie.
And here’s the one story that Dr. Lee says can help to prevent your child from lying…


Dr. Kang Lee’s Book


Dr. Lee’s TED talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/kang_lee_can_you_really_tell_if_a_kid_is_lying


Read Full Transcript


Jen:    [00:30]

Welcome to today’s episode of Your Parenting Mojo, which is called My Child is Lying to Me! I became interested in this topic after I researched the episode on symbolic representation in art, which relies on the child’s understanding of what I know might be different from what she knows and that turns out that that concept is also important in lying because if I’m a toddler and as far as I know what’s in your head is the same as what’s in my head, why would I bother lying to you? And so I also started to wonder about the connections between lying and joking. After my one year old started telling me jokes: she would point to a pig and say “ats cow” and I’d say “really?” And she’d say “no.” So lying is a really pervasive human behavior, but I’m wondering how do children learn how to lie and why do they do it and is there anything we can do to encourage them to be more truthful more often. So let’s dive right into that topic in a conversation with Dr Kang Lee, who’s a University Distinguished Professor at the University of Toronto, Dr Lee received his B.S. and M.A. from Hangzhou University in China and his Ph.D from the University of New Brunswick in Canada. Dr Lee has been studying lying for a really long time, but we hope he’s going to tell us the truth today because we need the help. Welcome Dr Lee. Thanks for joining us.

Dr. Lee: [01:44]

Hi. Thanks for inviting me to be part of your program.

Jen:     [01:48]

Alright, so let’s start at the beginning. What are some of the reasons that people lie and do all people lie?

Dr. Lee:   [01:54]

So as far as I can tell, among the kids we have seen, we have seen possibly over 10,000 kids from all ages as young as two years of age, all the way up to 16, 17 years of age. The majority of them would lie in various kinds of situations. The first kind of like kids tell, tend to be motivated by self protection and typically what happens is when they have done something wrong, they haven’t done something I’m not supposed to do and then they have to cover that up and that’s one of the most frequent kind of lies kids tell. And the one of the earliest kind of lies kids tell.

Jen:   [02:37]

Okay. And so I’m just thinking through what are the logical consequences of what you just said, if, if I try and set up my home so that there are fewer things that my child is not supposed to do so that I put things out of reach that she’s not supposed to play with. And you know, kids get into stuff and sometimes things happen, but am I reducing the possibility that my two year old is going to lie to me if I…no. We have our video on and you’re shaking your head.

Dr. Lee:  [03:08]

You know, the kids, the jobs of a child is to learn the various rules of our society. We actually have a lot of rules. You know, you should do this, you should do not do that. But you know, during the learning process, you know, the child does not always listen to you and they say do not touch this. It’s not going to be good. And then, but the child sometimes it has this problem we call a deficit in inhibitory control because they are learning to control their behaviors, but they are not quite there yet. That the brain is not matured to a point that, that the way wherever you tell a child not to do the immediately do not do it. It’s not going to happen. So then the child would do something even for adults and say don’t do this.

Dr. Lee:    [03:54]

And the adults also find it difficult to not do certain things that you tell them not to do. So because of this struggle, sometimes the kids would violate the rules, violate the things you know, you set out for kids, and then what they’re going to do. So because kids, they do not have political power, they do not have the physical power. So one of the things that they can turn to really is to, using their mind, their ability to use the language. So they discover very quickly, as soon as they learn how to speak basically, and they say, Oh yes, you know, if I just simply move the lips of my mouth, I actually can get mom to believe that I have not done something that I’m not supposed to do. And that actually happens around two and two and half years of age.

Jen:   [04:47]

Okay. So, okay, so this starts really early then I’m thinking about, you know, why, why do people lie in general? And it seems as though there are a lot of reasons and we typically say, Oh, I want my child to be truthful all the time, but we’re not truthful all the time, right?

Dr. Lee:    [05:05]

No, no. And so the first kind of lies I call for self protection, right? So that happens all the time to just not sure, just make sure we do not get into trouble. And, and lying is a very, very efficient way of getting us out of trouble. So that’s the first kind of license. So I called self protection lies. Another kind of lines is for self personal benefits to gain something. For example, you know, you sometimes you want to get the toy you want, but you may have to lie to your brother or sister so that they will not touch the toy you really want. So that’s another kind of lies to win competition. And that happens all the time in the adult environment as well. But the third kind of lies interesting one that is the I call white lies.

Dr. Lee: [05:55]

These are the lies we tell to avoid hurting another person’s feelings. And these are kinds of lies actually we are socialized to do, you know, we as parents, we want to raise our kids to be polite kids and in order to do that we actually sometimes teach our kids not to tell the truth. And the kids actually learn very quickly as soon as they turn three years of age, they would learn to not to say certain things that are going to hurt other people’s feelings. For example, if the child sees a person who, who has a facial anomoly, or the person is overweight. You don’t want any child to see, you know, see something like, “oh, you are fat,” or “you have something strange on your face.” Rather you want your child not to say anything. And then sometimes they even have to lie about it. And so, so these kinds of politeness kind of lies or white lies are actually socialized by us, by the society. So we do that all the time. You know, when we say oh, your hair cut looks great. You know, your dress looks great, your food looks great, you know, because just think about this. If you don’t tell white lies in some situations you’re not going to have any friends.

Jen:   [07:08]

Your hair looks great by the way.

Dr. Lee:   [07:13]

I hope it does!

Jen:     [07:14]

And that that makes a ton of sense. But as a two year old, three year olds. I wonder how do they figure out the difference between the lies that we want them to tell and the lies that we don’t want them to tell.

Dr. Lee:     [07:23]

This is very confusing for kids. I mean we parents always say, tell the truth, you know, I want you to be the honest job and they do everything they could tweak, kind of convey this message. But at the same time when your child tells the truth and the parents actually don’t encourage them, for example, the child says, oh, that person is fair to right in front of the person. And the parents really get very embarrassed by that. And they say, you shouldn’t do this. You shouldn’t say that. And then the child gets confused and you said I have to be honest. Now you say no, so that kind of situation becomes an issue and a lot of parents are not prepared to teach their kids about different situations one are to tell the truth and sometimes you have to not to tell the truth all the time. So I think this kind of socialization should start early.

Jen:    [08:16]

And when you say that what you mean is you should help the children to understand when they should tell a white lie and when they should tell the truth and how do you do that?

Dr. Lee:    [08:25]

Exactly. So when you are encouraging your child to tell a white lie, for example, you have to tell them why that’s important, the rationale behind it. And then when you ask your child not to tell a lie, you don’t say, do not tell her like don’t say it generically, but say, if this happens, I want you to tell me the truth. And that’s very important for the child to know from the very beginning in what kinds of situations lies are not permissible and in what kinds of situations lies are permissible.

Jen:    [08:58]

That’s an awesome little nugget of wisdom for parents. And how old do you think children can be when they understand that, you know, my toddler is two and a half right now. Is that too early?

Dr. Lee: [09:07]

Not really. So the, the are the studies showing that the kids are abroad this age are able to know that what is the true state of affairs and what is false. So the truth and false is understandable by about two yields by three and four years of age. They actually can tell the difference between a lie and the truth. So they are very sophisticated. And then another thing, you know, you mentioned about children’s representation of things in the world. We always, you know, thought kids under six years of age are unable to tell the difference between what’s imagined and what’s magical about what’s real and true. And they actually can tell very, very well. So something they have imagined in their brain and they can talk about that and something. They actually come up as a lie. They can tell the difference under six years of age. So they are very sophisticated.

Jen:   [10:04]

Okay. So let’s jump to that topic a little bit and that was actually one of the reasons that I first reached out to you because if this kind of discrepancy in the literature that I was finding, you know, I had read the theory of mine doesn’t normally develop until around age four, but the children as young as two can tell lies and so can you tell us a bit about what theory of mind is and why it matters and where this discrepancy plays out in your work.

Dr. Lee:     [10:26]

So let me just backtrack a little bit. So we have been looking for various factors that make a child more likely to lie or less likely to lie. So we have looked at almost everything. We looked at gender; we wanted to know are girls more likely to lie the boys or vice versa. It turns out that there’s no difference. It’s boys and girls are equally likely to lie, and they equally lie well or not very well. So their skills of lying is also very similar. Then we say, okay, what about parents? Right? You know, do parents with different kinds of parenting styles, would they produce kids who like earlier or later it turns out that that also doesn’t matter. So no matter whether or not you are permissible parents or you are a very strict parents, your kids are still as much as likely to lie as the next kid.

Jen:    [11:18]

There’s no hope!

Dr. Lee:     [11:20]

No hope. What about, let’s see, religion, right? So you’re more religious. Would a more religious family produce more truth tellers and turns out that’s not true either, so regardless of what religion, how much you practice it, your kids are still as likely to lie as the next kid in the next family. So I see. What else are we looked at? The children’s personalities all can maybe, you know, personality, right? Some kids are more shy than the others; will the more outgoing kids be more likely to lie more than the shy kids? It turned out that also is irrelevant. So we looked at at many, many factors and turn out there are two important factors I call ingredients for lying. So one is theory of mind. So this is the idea that I, you know, different people have different beliefs and knowledge about the world because it’s a very essential for lying because the point of lying is I know you don’t know what I know and therefore I can lie to you. And children actually understand this at about two years of age, if not earlier. Therefore it’s very likely your child is going to live very soon or has already.

Jen:    [12:31]

Well, she already told me that a cow is a pig or a pig is a cow.

Dr. Lee:     [12:38]

They actually can tell the difference between what I know and what you know.

Jen:     [12:41]

Okay. So before you move on from that, I want, I want to just tease that out a little bit. So there is sort of a classic test of theory of mind, which is that you go with your child into the kitchen maybe and you take some cookies out of the cookie jar where they normally are and you put them in the fridge and you say, okay, Daddy’s going to come into the kitchen in a minute and he wants a cookie. Where is he going to look for the cookies? And if your child says that he’s going to look in the cookie jar, then the idea is that your child doesn’t realize that daddy couldn’t know that we put the cookies in the fridge. And so I’ve read that if you do that test that you shouldn’t expect to see a child have theory of mind until around age four. So are there different tests that you can do to find it earlier or what’s going on here?

Dr. Lee:   [13:28]

Yes. So, so the different stages of learning about theory of mind. So they, the first one you need to know is like, I want something and you want something and what I want differs from what you want. That’s something the child already and stands around two years of age.

Jen:     [13:46]


Dr. Lee:    [13:47]

The other thing a child is able to understand around two years of age is what I can see is different from what you can see. What I know differs from what you know. So these are the two ingredients we already have as a two year old and using this information you are already able to apply that to the situation of lying and then you can generate lies accordingly. So that’s the first step. The second step is okay, in the one I tell a lie to you, not just I, I know you don’t know what I know, but also I want to tell you to change your mind. It’s the one that you the test about four years of age, the majority of kids are going to know that if I have a belief about the world and you may have a different belief about the world and you are believe about the world is going to be false. And then so that is slightly more sophisticated.

Jen:   [14:38]


Dr. Lee:  [14:39]

Being knowledge among people and different differentiating desires among people. But regardless though, these abilities are very, very important for the child to decide to tell a lie or not as well as what kind of lies.

Jen:   [14:58]

All right, that makes a ton of sense. Okay. So before I interrupted you, you were saying that there were two main ingredients of lying. One of those was theory of mind. What’s the other one?

Dr. Lee:  [15:05]

The second ingredient for good line is executive functioning. So executive functioning really refers to our ability to plan our activities, to inhibit unwanted activities and to execute the activities that we want to execute and also to switch from one activity to another. So, and of course they also involves the memory about things you have to do. So if I use the, uh, the, uh, psychological jargon, it would be like, inhibition, switch, and short term memory and planning. So these are the four elements of executive functioning.

Jen:    [15:49]

Sorry those are inhibition. What was the second one?

Dr. Lee:      [15:51]


Jen:    [15:54]

Switch. What is switch?

Dr. Lee:   [15:56]

Switch is the ability to go from one activity to another.

Jen:   [16:00]


Dr. Lee:   [16:01]

And then short term memory and planning. Yeah. So, so all these things put together is called executive functioning. Sometimes I use a more common language that will be “self control.” So turns out to. So the children’s ability to self control predicts whether or not they’re able to lie and how well they like. So these are the two essential ingredients for your child to use to start to tell a lie at a very young age and to carry on telling lies throughout his or her life.

Jen:  [16:38]

Awesome. Get them started early.

Dr. Lee:    [16:41]


Jen:    [16:41]

When I mentioned to a friend of mine that I was doing this episode, he. He said, isn’t it true there’s some kind of relationship between IQ and lying and it seems as though you were just alluding to that there and maybe it’s not IQ, maybe it’s executive functioning, is that right?

Dr. Lee:    [16:54]

Very good. We actually have done studies to measure children’s IQ. And then their theory and their executive functioning. IQ Itself does not help you to tell a lie or the lie. Well, IQ doesn’t do very much. What really is working is these two incredibly important cognitive abilities, theory of mind, and self control. So IQ measures you are is your general ability. So general ability does not help you to tell lies. General ability may allow you to survive well in your school. You know, in the general environment, but not specifically about lying.

Jen:  [17:34]

OK. So you alluded to another concept that I think you’ve done a fair bit of research on, which is called semantic leakage. Can you tell us about that and maybe how it can help us?

Dr. Lee:    [17:44]

Yes. Yes. So this is really a lot of jargon. I’m sorry. So this is it from the scientific literature done in the 1970s. It has nothing to do with going to pee.

Jen:   [17:55]

It does sound vaguely related to that, doesn’t it?

Jen:  [17:59]

So what it is really interesting. It’s your ability to tell a lie based upon a lie. So sometimes I called the second order line, so for example, if I say…you just said you know, your hair looks great.

Jen:  [18:18]

Which it does.

Dr. Lee:    [18:18]

Thank you. Then to what extent do you think, why do you think my hairstyle looks good? Right? So you actually have to, even though you think my hair cut is awful, but now you said, you know, my hair cut it looks great. Now you have to say something to be consistent with your initial lie, which is very, very difficult thing to do and the way discovered that the kids under seven years of age are highly unlikely to be able to control their semantic leakage, so they are very easy to reveal the fact they have lied initially. So the way we, I try to discover my own son’s lying or tell parents to discover the are their kids initial lies by ask followup questions, do not just take your child to work for it and ask, you know, additional questions and then they eventually are going to leak out the fact they have lied to you initially.

Jen: [19:21]

OK. All we need to do is just keep asking… Can we ask the same question or do we have to ask a slightly different question?

Dr. Lee: [19:27]

Oh no. You have to ask different questions because otherwise when you corner your child by asking did you lie? did you lie? did you lie? Then they are going to say, no, I didn’t.

Jen: [19:35]

Because that’s not that hard.

Dr. Lee:  [19:36]

Yeah, exactly. You have to ask other questions that are related to the event you were talking about, but in a way that kind of unexpected. So let me give you an example. So in our lab, so what we do is we bring the kids into our lab. We will say we are going to play a guessing game with you. We’re going to put that toy behind you, the toy makes some sound. You have to listen to the sound of the toy makes and guess what it is. So initially we would make it very easy. We put up a toy car behind the child then at the car with a hook and then we ask, what is it? The child says it’s a car, and we say great, very good. And then we bring out a cat, the cat, the meows. Then they said, what is that> and the child says, it’s a cat.

Dr. Lee: [20:24]

And we said, yes, you’re right. And they will be allowed to turn around and take a look and to confirm they were right. So they got excited. Then we say, okay, well how third toy and put it behind your back. Let’s say it’s a toy dog. Instead of barking we have some kind of music playing and so that there’s no link between the the dog and that music is says child who will be listening to the sound of that the toy makes and then the child has to guess what it is and just before we ask the child to guess what it is, we tell the child, Oh, I’m sorry, I have to take this phone call so I have to go out and take this phone call so do not peak at the toy before we leave the room and as soon as we leave the room and we just let leave the child in the room for one minute.

Dr. Lee: [21:10]

This is typically what we do, but the majority of the kids cannot control themselves.

Jen: [21:13]

For even a minute!

Dr. Lee:  [21:16]

So the majority of kids turn around to peak and then we return to the room, the we cover up the toy and ask the child to turn around and facing us. Then with the child, you know, when that was gone, did you peek and the majority of kids say No, I did not peek. Then we will say, okay, now you guess what the toy is, right? So just think about this. If you are a good liar, you wouldn’t say dog because how would you know? Right. So they say, Oh, I was listening to the music, you know, and then the music, so can remind me of this kind of thing, you know, my dog likes to listen to. And then that would make sense. Right. But the better liars who will say, Oh, I don’t know, you know, uh, I, I really have no idea because the music doesn’t tell me anything about this toy. If you want me to give a wild guess, I would say a dog. Right? Something like this. So they can’t help trying to be right.

Dr. Lee:   [22:11]

You have to dress it up in a way that, that is convincing and the majority of kids under seven years of age cannot do that. So. And those kids who can do it, who can dress it up, and then some kids actually will say, I don’t know what this, I’m sorry, you know? And then we measured their theory of mind and self control with these and turned out they are much better than those kids who can not control the semantic leakage.

Jen:  [22:39]

So what you’re really saying here is that we have a chance until about age seven with most of our kids. And at age seven is all lost?

Dr. Lee:  [22:48]

Yes. By Age seven, your child is going to be a very sophisticated liar if they have these two abilities, but you know. So sometimes I’ll be joking to, to the parents, like if they discovered their child lying and lying well under seven, they should celebrate because that means your child is much more better developed than some kids and some other kids because some of the other kids, they actually cannot lie as well as your child.

Jen: [23:21]

So be proud, parents.

Dr. Lee: [23:22]


Jen:  [23:24]

Okay. So I want to talk about something I read about young children, which is that very young children tend to consider whether a statement is a lie only based on whether it is factual. So if I’m talking to the babysitter and the babysitter, you know, it’s someone we haven’t worked with before and she says, well how old is your daughter? And I might say, you know, she’s almost three when actually not really, almost three. She’s two and a half and she would consider that to be a lie because she’s, you know, she’s not almost three. Is that, is that true? Does that really happen?

Dr. Lee:  [23:54]

Yes. So for example, so they don’t, they don’t care whether or not you have the intention to lie to them. For example, if you gave me, you lied to me and giving me false information, then I innocently pass along my information to the child, the child would think I’m still lying to her because what I’m saying is not true even though I don’t have the intention to do so. So this is a for kids under, you know, seven, eight years of age. But the after that, they become quite sophisticated so they understand the difference between intentional lying or making a false statement unintentionally. So that basically, that’s honest mistake.

Jen: [24:38]

Yeah. And it seems as though that has a lot of implications for kind of what you’d tell your child about what you’re gonna do that day. You know, if you, if you say, yeah, we’re going to go shopping and then something else, and then we’re going to go swimming and shopping takes forever and there’s huge lines and at the end of the day you don’t have time to go swimming. Is it your child thinks you’ve lied to you?

Dr. Lee: [24:58]

Oh yes. So this isn’t something we discovered, which is. So it’s really interesting. It’s, it’s basically about promise. So anything parents say about the future will be considered by kids as promise. Right? So, so if you change that with, you know, you have good intention to carry it out, your promise, but you fail to live up to your promise and kids become quite upset about this. So, which turns out to be very interesting. If you want your child to tell you the truth, what do you should do is before you asked the question about whether or not you know, they have broken the cookie jar in before you do that and you just. So only thing you have to ask you I tried to do is I’m going to ask you next question and I want you to promise me you’re telling me the truth.

Dr. Lee: [25:46]

As soon as you do that, your child is more likely to tell you the truth and is interestingly. Then we actually try to figure out the question whether or not the child actually understands what their promise is. They don’t. So they don’t understand what their promise is but as long as you say, you promise to tell me the truth and they’re more likely to tell you the truth, which is really interesting. So, so they have some kind of very rudimentary understanding of what the promise is and that seems to be sufficient for the child to tell you the truth,

Jen:  [26:22]

Huh? Okay. That’s a very useful nugget of information.

Dr. Lee:  [26:28]

Yes. For parents or for your audience. You know, if they really want their kids to tell the truth instead of cornering them, they should ask them to promise to tell the truth first.

Jen:  [26:39]

Okay. And does, does that wear off? Can you use that too many times?

Dr. Lee: [26:44]

I think no. You can use this for quite some time.

Jen: [26:47]

Okay. Okay, good to know. So is is lying seen in all cultures? Do you know, is it kind of across social settings or is it, is it mainly the North American children that lie?

Dr. Lee:  [26:59]

So yes, Lying for self protection, for personal gain is universal. Kids all over the world learn to tell lies almost at the same age. They develop the ability almost in the same way. And the white lie is similar to at least for the early part of development before seven, eight years of age, but there are culturally specific lies. So let me give you two examples. So one is called the Blue Lie. So I never, I don’t know whether you’ve heard this term.

Jen:  [27:33]


Dr. Lee: [27:33]

So blue lie is a lie that’s told in the name of the collective. So for example, so the reason it’s called the blue light is actually easy. It’s because a lot of people believe that the police sometimes go to the court and lie so that they can get some kind of suspect convicted because they believe that’s going to help with the justice. Right. So because the police tend to wear blue uniforms, so it’s why it’s called the blue lies. So, but generally speaking, so blue lies are lies told to protect, to help a group. And that happens sometimes in a sports team. For example, you know, the whole sport team cheated in a game and the team members in order to protect the whole group would lie about this. And that happens a, at a country level. Sometimes politicians would lie for a party or for its country…

Jen:  [28:28]


Dr. Lee:  [28:30]

Yes, sometimes. So we have found that the Blue lies emerge earlier in eastern Asian societies because like Japan, China, Korea are more collectivist society. And because of that, kids are socialized to help the collective over individuals. And because of that, the kids will learn earlier that sometimes you have to lie for your group, so that’s one kind of another crime line that people tell in East Asia is what I called a modesty lie. That is you have done something good. Instead of taking credit for it. Eastern Asians are actually required to not talk about that or to lie about that. For example, you know, if, if I happen to clean up my teachers, I’m a desk when teacher come see, you know, asking the who cleanup of this desk and I am not supposed to me, me, me, I did it, you know, if I do that, I will be criticized by my teacher if I were in China and instead of saying I don’t know, I do it. So that’s called the modesty lie. It’s very highly valued in Eastern Asian societies. So these other lies, I don’t see very much in North America. Canadian kids don’t do that. American kids do not do that.

Jen: [29:54]

Yeah, I think they probably would still be some social stigma if you cleaned your teacher’s desk and you did say, you know, me, me me, I did it. Maybe they would be, uh, you know, so that you’d be sort of an outcast for trying to suck up. So maybe maybe you just wouldn’t clean the desk. I don’t know. Maybe you just avoid the activity in the first place. Yeah.

Dr. Lee: [30:14]

Good. But there are situations in which, for example, you get a, you know, you get 100 percent from your math exam, you know, and that you should be proud of it in North America. So kids are your, you know, how did you do this? I got 100 percent from my math exam, but you’re not supposed to do that in China or in Korea.

Jen: [30:32]

Yeah. Wow. That’s fascinating. Yeah. I’m becoming very interested in the differences in cultures and in parenting styles because we are so individualistic in North America and it seems as though we have our self confidence relies so much on being better than somebody else. And so I’m starting to probe very deeply into is that necessarily a good thing and if not, you know, or are there things that we can borrow from other cultures, um, to, to encourage a more collectivist nature in our society. Maybe.

Dr. Lee: [31:04]

Also your humility. A little bit.

Jen:  [31:06]

Yeah, just a little bit. And maybe some lying too. Okay. So as we sort of head towards a conclusion, I want to talk about what happens when a child has lied already, you’ve given us some awesome advice to prevent lies in the first place. But if ally has already happened, I read one study that followed a group of children at age two and then again at age four and counted the number of lies that they told in their home environments. And it found that a lot of parents don’t challenge lies and even when they do their addressing or questioning or punishing the liar isn’t very effective. And doing those things when the child is two doesn’t predict that the child will lie any less at age four. So I’m wondering, if a lie has been told, should parents punish the child for telling the lie or for the original transgression or both or neither: what do you do with this?

Dr. Lee:  [31:56]

Yeah, so I didn’t do this study but a friend of mine did this study and then she found parents are kind of a little bit hypocritical for example. So they will say, know, I think a lot of parents, a lot of your audience will do the same. They will say, okay, if you tell me the truth, even if you broke the vase that I like very much. If you told me the truth, I would not be mad at you. And then your child says, Okay, now I’m going to tell you I actually broke the vase. What happened? You become mad. So you actually punish your kid for telling you the truth. And what happens next time your child is more likely to tell you a lie instead of the truth next time.

Jen:   [32:40]

And in fact you lied, right? Because you said you wanted the truth no matter what. And actually you sort of didn’t.

Dr. Lee:   [32:46]

Exactly. So if you discover your child lying, which by the way is very, very difficult to do, so it’s almost impossible for you to discover your child lying from by looking at their facial expressions alone, for example. So, so mostly if you discover your child line you should turn that into kind of a teachable moment and so would the way to do it is not being emotional and you should not be freaked out, oh my kid is going to become a pathological liar for life instead that you should kind of take this like, okay, this is great is I caught my child lying and then you use this. You have a very calm demeanor and you have to control your own emotions. And then use this to talk about what is the truth, what is a lie and what is your expectation? And white lying is good and white truth telling is good…I mean, why lying is bad.

Dr. Lee:   [33:41]

But when you have this conversation you shouldn’t have. We shouldn’t be great intellectual. That is non-emotional and this is very, very difficult for many parents to do because they get very emotional when they discover their kids have lied. So that will be my suggestion.

Jen:   [33:58]

Okay. So let’s just play this out then. So, I broke a vase and you’re my parent and there’s nobody in the else in the house and it couldn’t have been anybody else. So you know it was me and I want to dig into the, how do you tell a child lied? But let’s just say that you know, because there was nobody else who could have done it. And I say, no, I didn’t do it. So what do you say to me?

Dr. Lee:   [34:20]

And then, so it was then I will say you don’t tell your child to how you discover your child has lied to you. And so you basically say what I said. So you know, the boss is broken and if you broke it, I really would like you telling me the truth. And that’s all I’m going to ask you this question. And before I ask the question, I want you to promise me that you’re going to tell me the truth. And the child would say yes. So make sure that the child doesn’t say, uh huh, no. No. Okay. Okay. The child has say, I promise that’s very, very important that we have done a study about this. If the child says, uh huh or okay, they are not going to tell you the truth. They are like a young lawyer.

Jen:    [35:04]

I am so glad there’s somebody out there testing all this for us!

Dr. Lee:  [35:09]

So they have to say yes, I promise. Then you say, okay, you know, did you break the vase? So I think that’s the important thing for your child. And if your child continues to lie. Then you say, well, you know, I know that you broke it. And then you have to talk about the importance of truth telling and the negativity of lying but again, you have to be very unemotional.

Jen:  [35:35]

And why is that?

Dr. Lee:   [35:37]

The reason for that is because the, when you have emotions, then the child is not paying attention to the content that you’re talking about, the are picking up the negativities from your voice, and that may prevent them from tiny telling you the truth next time at the moment. So making it intellectual is very important. It’s very hard. I know. Do you have kids?

Dr. Lee:   [36:07]

Yeah, I have. I have a child who is now 13. I. Yeah. I’ve been very good with this and I will be. I was very, very calm when I discovered he did something naughty.

Jen:   [36:21]

So he has been truth truthful…

Jen:  [36:24]

…to the best of your knowledge!

Dr. Lee:   [36:27]

Yes, to the best of my knowledge.

Jen:  [36:27]

Okay, so let’s talk about that then. You mentioned something…. You said that it’s very hard for parents to tell if their children are lying. How did you find that out?

Dr. Lee:   [36:35]

So we have taken videos of kids who are lying in our lab, and then we mixed them up with the kids who are telling the truth in our lab, but in terms of the content. So half of the kids will be peekers by who said, I did not peek; the other half would be non peekers who did not peak and said, I did not peek, so by listening to the words they say you couldn’t tell the difference, but then we just show this video clips to many, many parents and did their performances at 50 percent, which is chance level.

Dr. Lee:    [37:16]

And that includes our children, the parents own kids. So parents cannot detect their own kids’ lying.

Jen:   [37:24]

Really? See. I would think that I would know my daughter’s verbal ticks and facial expressions better than I might know somebody else’s child. But you’re saying that that’s not true. And at least in terms of lying.

Dr. Lee:    [37:37]

Yeah, no, no, I’m sorry. Yeah, you cannot tell whether your kid is lying or not.

Jen:     [37:43]

Wow. Okay. So are we completely at their mercy? Is the reason that we don’t tell them how we found out that they lied because we might need to use the strategy again and we don’t want them to find out how we know.

Dr. Lee:    [37:55]

The reason actually is really interesting. One is that we, we tend to have this bias we call truth bias. We tend to believe others are telling us the truth. And this is a very, very good strategy to have. Imagine I’m worried about whether or not the next person is been lying to me, my life is going to be like hell. So you actually have to, you know, take, have a strong faith in people that they’re telling you the truth. Otherwise life is very, very difficult to live. So including your own kids, you know, you, you basically, you know that your kids are telling you the truth 99 percent of the time or more so if you don’t have this truth bias and you are going to be very suspicious of your child, which is not going to be a healthy relationship between you and your child. So I think so because of this then we are not very good at detecting children’s lies or other people’s lives. You know, we actually, adults are very poor at detecting other adults’ lives as well. So our performance is about 50 percent as well. So I think this is a very adaptive way for us to be cooperative, with each other, but someone can take advantage of this.

Dr. Lee:   [39:05]

Yeah. So is there anything that parents can do to get better at understanding if their kids are lying? Or is it just you just kind of accept that you really don’t know?

Dr. Lee:   [39:18]

You have to accept that. I’m sorry.

Jen:  [39:22]

This is not the advice I was hoping for.

Dr. Lee:  [39:25]

There’s no other tricks to help you to detect your children’s lives, but they are ways you can promote truth telling. For example, we have done quite a bit of study about this. We thought, you know, talking to your kids about the importance of truth telling and negativity of lying would make your child more likely to tell the truth? And it turns out it’s actually not. So it doesn’t promote your child’s truth telling at all. So even though I said earlier, if you discover your child lying, you should talk to them about this, that that’s only at an intellectual level. You basically teach your kids what is a lie, what is the truth, and what is the moral obligations a child should have. But whether or not your child is going to lie to you in the future has nothing to do with whether or not you have have had this conversation with him or her.

Dr. Lee:   [40:12]

So why bother having a conversation?

Dr. Lee:   [40:14]

Yes. Well, eventually they have to know intellectually what is a lie and what is the truth.

Dr. Lee:   [40:19]

Okay. So at least they’re doing it on purpose and not by accident…

Dr. Lee:   [40:22]

Exactly. So that’s number one. Number two is, so I thought, you know, teach telling children stories such as the Pinocchio story or the story of the boy who cried wolf would be helpful and it turned out they are useless. It does not promote your children’s honesty at all. But it turned out that the one that really promoted honesty among young children is the story which is a made up story. It’s George Washington, and the cherry tree. Have you heard of this story?

Dr. Lee:   [40:59]

Yes. Even though I’m not American and you are not American either!

Dr. Lee:    [41:04]

It turned out that story is the best. Out of all the stories we have tested that would make the child more likely to tell you the truth.

Jen:  [41:12]


Dr. Lee:  [41:12]

The reason for that is because. So you should read this story to your audience because the, the, the message it conveys is different from the Pinocchio story, or the boy who cried wolf story. In these two classic stories, it’s negative. If you lie, something bad is gonna happen to you. But in the George Washington story, that story actually conveys a very positive message. That is, if you tell the truth, I’m going be very proud of you. So remember the messaging in the story, like, you know, I would rather have a honest boy than a thousand cherry trees and that that’s a very, very positive message. And the young kids get it because we actually did it. We changed the story. We turned that into a negative ending story. So George Washington lied and it was discovered by his father and his father scolded him. And then the whole effect went away. So if you tell a George Washington story with my ending, negative ending, that kids continue to lie. So that tells you the messages are very important, to the positive message is very important to promote honesty at least in young children.

Jen:   [42:29]

Okay. All right. We’re going to put a link in the references to that George Washington story as the story that can get your kids to tell the truth.

Dr. Lee:   [42:38]

The last thing I wanted to talk about is about parents themselves. So, so modeling we discovered is also a very important way of promoting your child’s honesty. That is if you want your child to be honest, you yourself must be honest. So do not lie in front of your child. Which is difficult to do sometimes.

Jen:  [43:01]

And does that include social white lies?

Dr. Lee:   [43:03]

White lies as well, yes. For example, I remembered when my sister was raising her daughter who was about four years of age and there’s a salesperson knocking on her door and she didn’t want to talk to the salesperson. She says to her daughter, tell the person that not at home. No. That’s bad modeling. Right?

Dr. Lee:   [43:25]

It’s actually a horrible thing to do because you teach your kids how to lie and you make your child’s lie for you. Yes, yeah, so, so the modeling is very important because we discovered that a phenomenon in the last few years is that a lot of parents actually lie to their kids in the name of parenting. So we call it the parenting by lying. So like if we don’t eat this, a bad person to come and snatch you away, I don’t know, you know, sometimes you take your child to do grocery shopping, they child really, really wanted to have the candy, but you don’t want your child to have the candy. What do you say? And then your child is crying and crying and then throw a temper tantrum, what do you do? You see, if you continue to cry, I’m going to get the police to arrest you, which are totally not not going to happen. So this is kind of lies sometimes parents tell their kids and then because kids, sometimes know, these are lies and then they would model your behavior in the interaction with other kids or with you and in return in the future.

Jen:    [44:32]

So those are pretty big whoppers right? My daughter caught me in a lie the other day. You just reminded me of this. It was close to her bedtime. We were in her room, and she had a glass of water and she all of a sudden decided she wanted some milk and I didn’t want to walk all the way down to the fridge and get her some milk. And I said, I’m sorry, I don’t think we have any. And she said, actually we do because we put it in the oatmeal this morning, because she had watched me pour it into the oatmeal. I’m like, darn it. She remembered! And so I went and got her milk. So she caught me in that. Is that just as bad as promising that the police would have arrested her?

Dr. Lee:   [45:03]

Totally, yes. You’re modeling lying. Really. These are the things we do, sometimes we catch ourselves doing them; sometimes we don’t. So that’s why we are trying to kind of promote this term parenting by lying. So parents will know, you know, we can tell ourselves, oh, I’m doing parenting by lying and then they will try to not to do as much because they tend to bring about negative consequences in the future.

Jen:   [45:31]

Okay. My wrist is officially slapped by the expert. Thank you so much. Dr. Lee, this has been awesome. We learned so much that I hope we can put into practice and yeah, I think some lies are inevitable anyway it seems, but hopefully we can at least manage them and perhaps reduce their frequency a little bit and know what to do about them when they come up. So thank you.

Dr. Lee:     [45:55]

Thank you.

Jen:   [45:56]

So all the references that we’ve talked about, I’ll put the George Washington cherry tree story in the references as well. You can find them at YourParentingMojo.com/lying. And if anyone is interested in hearing it more from Dr. Lee, you can find his TED talk and I’ll put a link to that in the references as well. It’s called Can You Really Tell if a Kid is Lying? And I fear he’s given away the punchline little bit, but there’s a lot more information in that talk as well, so thanks again for joining us.

Dr. Lee:  [46:22]

Thank you very much. Bye Bye.


Also published on Medium.

About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.


  1. Christiane on November 8, 2017 at 12:36 PM

    Ok, so I’ll try not to lie to my daughter (on a regular basis). But what about Santa and x-mas presents? I saw a discussion in a Facebook group that left me more confused.

    • Jen Lumanlan on December 9, 2017 at 6:14 AM

      Sorry for the slow response, Christine – yours was buried among 39 spam comments. Our approach is going to be to tell our 3.5YO that Santa is a person that some people like to believe in, who does nice things for people (like bring them gifts at Christmas). Hopefully this will also help to sidestep the grandparents’ “be a good girl or Santa won’t bring you any presents.” I read that you could probably do whatever you like about Santa without doing much harm to your kids; you could tell them what is technically a lie to preserve their enjoyment and they’ll probably be a bit miffed when they find out the truth, but they’ll get over it. Do what fits best with your family’s beliefs!

  2. Martha Snyder on December 28, 2017 at 8:33 PM

    Hi, Jen. I am looking for the book referenced in the episode. Was it just any version of the George Washington / Cherry tree story?

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