Why Kids Lie: How Parents Can Encourage Truthfulness – Paul Ekman

Introduction
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It’s not that everyone always tells the truth, or that we always need to know it. Politeness often requires some fabrication. “That was a delicious meal-I’m just too full for seconds,” says the dinner guest even when the hostess is not a very good cook. “Sorry we can’t make it, just can’t get a baby-sitter,” the neighbors apologize when the real reason is they want to avoid what is expected to be a dull evening. Tact often requires evasion, embroidery, and sometimes saying something that is completely untrue.

The late Professor Erving Goffman, one of the leading American sociologists, saw all of social life as a performance in which we each play the roles required and expected of us. From his perspective, no one really ever tells the truth, and it is not the truth that matters. What matters is that we follow the mostly unwritten rules of social life. I agree with Professor Goffman. Someone may show he or she cares about you by not being truthful, sparing your feelings. Sometimes the untrue message is the one that lets us know what someone is going to do. When I ask my secretary “How are you?” in the morning, I don’t really want to know that she is feeling miserable because she had a terrible fight with her son. I want to know that she is going to be able to do her job well, which she assures me when she lies and says, “Just fine.”

There are exceptions, instances in which someone isn’t just playing out a social role but committing an outright lie, moments when you trusted that you would be told the truth and weren’t. If you knew the person was lying to you, you would act differently, make different plans, evaluate the person differently. What that person gains or loses by lying is not trivial to you or to him. The stakes are usually high. When you discover such a lie, you feel violated. It hurts. It betrays your trust. Professor Goffman called these “bald-faced lies.”

Bald-faced lies betray and corrode closeness. They breed distrust and they can destroy any intimate relationship.
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Chapter Two
Why Some Kids Lie More Than Others
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The Machiavellian Lie: Are Liars Manipulators?
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Most of the research on Machiavellanism (researchers call it “Mach” for short) has studied adults. A few investigators have examined children to see if those who scored high on Mach lied more often or more successfully. The questionnaire identifying the Mach characteristics had to be modified for younger ages, but the content is the same as with adults. Here are examples of a version used with children:

Never tell anyone why you did something unless it will help you. (A Mach answers yes.)

Most people are good and kind. (A Mach answers no.)

The best way to get along with people is to tell them things that make them happy. (A Mach answers yes.)

You should do something only when you are sure it is right. (A Mach answers no.)

It is smartest to believe that all people will be mean if they have a chance. (A Mach answers yes.)

You should always be honest, no matter what. (A Mach answers no.)

Sometimes you have to hurt other people to get what you want. (A Mach answers yes.)

Most people won’t work hard unless you make them do it. (A Mach answers yes.)

It is better to be ordinary and honest than famous and dishonest. (A Mach answers no.)

It is better to tell someone why you want him to help you than to make up a good story to get him to do it. (A Mach answers no.)
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A Machiavellian approach to life is less prevalent among preadolescents than it is among adolescents and adults, according to some studies. However, some preadolescents do show a manipulative orientation. Commenting on this, Dr. Christie and his collaborator, Dr. Florence Geis, said:

    . . . exposure to the world outside the home leads to the fabled loss of childhood innocence and higher scores on the Mach scale [in some children] . . . Some adults score much lower on the Mach scale than the average ten-year-old and by all known criteria have maintained a trusting faith in their fellow man . . . while we have no systematic data as yet on children under ten, there is anecdotal evidence which suggests that some cherubs are very facile con artists.

These findings raise an important question: What causes some children to be very manipulative? The natural place to look for an answer is in the home, and specifically at the parents. There are two possible explanations. First, the parents might themselves be manipulators, and kids simply learn this behavior. The opposite might also be possible. If the parents are low Mach, their very trustfulness might unwittingly encourage their children to develop manipulative traits, since the parents would be such easy marks. Unfortunately, the evidence is contradictory, as there are two different studies supporting opposite possibilities. Perhaps both can occur.
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