Cognitive Daily

ResearchBlogging.orgAsk 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


  1. #1 agnostic
    May 7, 2008

    Once again we see how little influence parents have in their kids’ lives, in many ways. Sure, I’ll tell my parents the truth — what could they possibly do with that information? But my friends could use it against me in my larger social circle of kids my age, so I shouldn’t be so frank with them.

    Ah, the drama of being a teenager.

  2. #2 FhnuZoag
    May 7, 2008

    I think the reverse, actually. You don’t want to piss off your parents, because they can do things to you, so you lie to preserve their happy ignorance. You tell the truth to friends, because ultimately you don’t think they will care that much, and in the end can’t do all that much to you.

  3. #3 Joshua Zelinsky
    May 7, 2008

    I’d be very curious how these compare to percentages of people who admit that they have actually lied in such situations.

  4. #4 paul
    May 7, 2008

    I am skeptical about the results for the questions about lying to their parents, particularly the “moral” questions. If your parents would never ask you to do the items listed and you know it, then how can you honestly answer the question? Further cause to doubt the responses is the awkward phrasing of the questions – I had to read them a few times before I understood the question (perhaps because the statements are so contrary to my personal experience).

    I wonder what the kids’ feelings are about lying to researchers… 🙂

  5. #5 Ack
    May 7, 2008

    Ask a 4-year-old about his day and he will speak at length, oftern for hours. (I once interviewed preschoolers.)

    Ask again at 14 and you’ll get short answers, if any.

    What happened in between?

    Early on, the kid learns that when parents ask the kid about his day they don’t want to hear anything that they don’t care about, so the kid learns to pare down his output, editing out anything they’re uninterested in. Pretty soon he’s down to a canned answer of ‘nil’, although he may think a minute to see if there was something the parent might be interested in.

    Pretty soon, he’s down to the briefest of answers.

    As the kid becomes more socially responsible, he will find out if his parents can be trusted to keep quiet what was given in confidence. If the parent proves to be a blabbermouth, the kid will soon learn not to make that mistake again.

    There are two kinds of lies, those of commission and those of omission.

    We learn as small children that our parents are forever withholding information from us — lies of omission — and more often than not deliberately misinform us — lies of commission. Statistically, parents lie to their kids most of the time. (Cf. Paul Ekman)

    So the short answer to why children lie is because they have to grow up and become adults.

  6. #6 The Ridger
    May 7, 2008

    “So nearly all teens believe it’s okay to lie to your parents when you’ve defied their expectations to commit an immoral act.”

    But that first situation may be thought of as defying their expectations to commit a moral act – that is, you may feel that they expect you to do something wrong.

  7. #7 Miss Cellania
    May 8, 2008

    Inside, these kids know that lying is wrong. They just label a certain situation “acceptable” because they are already doing it, that is, lying to their parents.

  8. #8 outlier
    May 10, 2008

    This Time article has an interesting take on it, namely that parents actively teach their kids to lie.

  9. #9 outlier
    May 10, 2008

    Sorry, it’s New York Magazine. Not Time.

  10. #10 Dread Polack
    May 16, 2008

    I remember being a teenager. I was always pretty honest with my parents, mainly because I was a pretty boring kid and didn’t have much to lie about 🙂 However, now more than ever, teenagers spend more time at school than they do with their parents, and there are a lot more immediate consequences of lying to friends than parents. At most, you have 2 parents, and it won’t go much beyond them. Lie to a friend, and the lie (and truth of the lie, eventually) will likely spread to hundreds of your peers. These people have a lot more to say in what you do for fun, who you date, etc. than your parents.

    Also, you can lose your friends, but not your parents.

  11. #11 waterrocks
    May 23, 2008

    * 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

    Were the “moral” questions all like this? I think whether the teenager considers the parent to actually have the high moral ground on the issue could make a huge difference, and I can’t imagine most people would think that for either of these questions. If my parents expressed either of these preferences to me, I’d feel justified in considering them morally screwed up and I’d be much more likely to lie to them (I don’t want to be punished for something I strongly believe isn’t wrong, and lying to a moral degenerate doesn’t seem as bad as lying to someone you agree with morally). But if my parents advised me not to get into a fight and I did, I wouldn’t lie about it.

    (I’m 18, so only a little older than the older group in the study.)

  12. #12 kiki
    December 22, 2009

    Umm.. I am doing a prodject on lying for science and I don’t think it is okay to lie even now sometimes teens are to embarresed maybe they should talk it out to there parent s. I think kids and teens should not lie to their parents it is a very bad habit and they could get in a lot of trouble. Friends you can lie to them as long as it doesn’t hurt them and you should not lie constantly! 🙂 ~ Kiki

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