By Megan Stonelake
I walked into the kitchen just in time to see him grab our dog’s nose and squeeze it with all his might. The dog yelped, he dropped his hand, and he turned to face my direction.
“Did you just hurt Zuma?” I sternly asked my four-year-old.
“No, she just made that noise and ran away,” he replied.
It was a bald-faced lie. He didn’t know I’d been standing behind. What he did know, however, is that I’m protective of the dog. I get angry when he hurts her, and (I’m ashamed to admit) I’ve yelled at him before for being rough with her.
Obviously I don’t love the addition of lying to an already maddening habit of taunting and hurting the dog. But could there be good news in there somewhere? I think so.
Theory of Mind
When children are very young, they don’t yet possess the sophistication necessary to realize not everyone thinks like they do and knows what they know. Even if they fall down in a room alone, they will assume you know it happened. If they see a hurt child on the playground, they will run to get you rather than the other child’s parent since they know their own parent always makes everything better.
Around the age of three, preschoolers start to recognize that other people have unique experiences and thoughts which are separate from their own. This is an important life skill called “theory of mind.” When children develop theory of mind, they begin to recognize their own inner workings as different than those of others. This insight is what allows them to lie.
However, theory of mind isn’t an inherently negative trait. Once children develop theory of mind, they begin to learn how to consider the perspective of another person. When my four-year-old hurts the dog’s face, he is now able to engage in a discussion about what that might have felt like for the dog. He can recognize how his actions affect someone else and how it feels to be treated a certain way. If this sounds like empathy, it’s because it is.
As authors Dr. Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz explain in Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered, “Once a child reaches this stage, he knows that others think different thoughts and see the world through different eyes – but also that these perspectives can often be predicted by imagining ‘what it would be like for me.’ Learning to lie helps you consider things from someone else’s point of view…If you can’t do this at all, you can’t empathize, but you also can’t lie effectively.”
Unfortunately, we simply can’t have one without the other. We might be morally opposed to lying, as we should be, but we can also see it as a milestone on the path to raising an empathic, compassionate child.
Why Children Lie
Just because we understand the importance of theory of mind doesn’t mean we have to be excited that our small child is lying to us. However, it’s important to remember that since it’s a natural milestone, it’s not an ominous sign of things to come. Just because a four-year-old tells a whopper of a lie doesn’t mean she’s on the fast track to becoming a psychopath. It could mean she’s simply trying out a novel behavior with her new and improved brain.
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