Ask almost anyone whether willfully deceiving another person — lying — is wrong, and they’ll say it is. But probe a little deeper and most people will say there are some instances where lying is okay: lying to prevent a crime or an injustice is acceptable, just not lying for personal gain. Parents teach their kids that lying is wrong, and punish them for telling lies.
I can still remember the shock when my parents “lied” about my sixth birthday (which was a day away) at an ice-cream parlor so I could get a free sundae. But eventually, at some point, most American kids end up telling lies to their parents, as did I — I just can’t remember any of them at the moment (honest!).
Clearly children’s conceptions of “acceptable” lies change over time. There must be a time in early childhood where they don’t understand what a lie is. Then they learn what a lie is, followed shortly by learning that a lying is wrong. But how do they move from this stage to the more nuanced moral assessment of lying held by most adults?
Serena Perkins and Elliot Turiel came up with six situations in which lying might be justified, then asked 64 teens aged 12 to 17 which ones were acceptable and which were not. The situations are below:
* Parents don’t want their child to befriend another teen because he/she is of a different race
* Parents want their child to fight another teen because he/she had been teased by them
* Parents don’t want their child dating an teen they don’t like
* Parents think the club their child wants to join is a waste of time
* Parents object to their child not wanting to finish her/his homework
* Parents don’t want their child to ride a motorcycle
In each case, the participants were asked whether it would be acceptable for a 16-year-old to lie about doing (or not doing) these things despite their parents’ objections. Here are the results:
So nearly all teens believe it’s okay to lie to your parents when you’ve defied their expectations to commit an immoral act. A statistically significant portion of older teens (age 15-17) believe lying is okay when the parents have personal objections to their behavior, but significantly fewer younger teens (age 12-14) believe this type of lie is acceptable. When the parents seem to be looking out for the child’s best interests (the prudential domain), most teens believe lying is wrong — though significantly more older teens still believe lying is acceptable in this case as well.
But Perkins and Turiel went further: They asked a separate group of 64 teens the same questions, except the role of parents was completely replaced by the role of a friend. Is it okay to lie to a friend? Here are the results:
Both groups were significantly less likely to say it was okay to lie to friends in the moral and personal domains — even if a friend asked you to do something immoral, about 50 percent of teens still said it was not okay to lie to them about the fact that you took the moral high ground (of course, telling the truth might be the higher moral course in this situation). In the prudential domain, the pattern was reversed, and lies were seen as more justified by both groups of teens.
In many ways these results aren’t especially surprising, but it is interesting to note when the differences in age groups come into play. Younger teens are less likely to believe lying about personal / prudential situations is okay compared to older teens, suggesting that older teens justify their lies based on their sense of autonomy.
But there are limits to this trend: the researchers also asked both groups whether it was acceptable to lie about a misdeed (breaking their parents’ / friends’ cell phone), and all agreed that this was unacceptable.
Perkins, S.A., Turiel, E. (2007). To Lie or Not to Lie: To Whom and Under What Circumstances. Child Development, 78(2), 609-621. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.01017.x