Tell Me Lies: Children Learn to Flatter at age 4

Like to hear how much your child adores you? Children learn to tell social lies around 4 years old—that’s right, they learn how to flatter others and tell you just what you want to hear!

In the spirit of the Powerful Word of the month—honesty–it’s humorous that we don’t always want our children to tell the truth all the time, do we? If they did, you might be startled by what you hear. See this 30 second clip from one mother whose child hasn’t censored his real thoughts about her as an example…

A Chinese-Canadian study out of the University of Toronto shows that even young children know the power of flattery. The researchers focused on 285 children ages 3-6 years old, and asked the youngsters to rate drawings by children and adults who they knew, as well as to rate the drawings of strangers.

The preschoolers were asked to judge these art pieces both when the artist responsible was present as well as when the artist was absent. While the 3 year olds were consistently honest no matter if they had a relationship with the artist or if the artist was there to hear their assessments, the 5 and 6 year olds gave more flattering ratings to those artists who were present to hear their remarks. Interestingly, they flattered both strangers and those people who they knew—however, those whom they had a relationship consistently received the highest praise.

Among the 4 year olds, half the group provided flattering remarks when the artist was present and half did not. This finding suggests that 4 years old marks a transition from honest critique to flattery as the child gains a better understanding of the culture’s social courtesies.

Kang Lee, director of the Institute of Child Study at OISE/U of T and co-author of the report (recently published in the journal Developmental Science) isn’t certain of why the children flatter at this age but he knows that something is definitely going on:

“I’m sure politeness and empathy play some role,” Lee tells a reporter “But the fact they gave higher ratings to some groups than others suggests there is some form of ulterior motive beyond just being polite. We socialize kids to show empathy and politeness to everybody, not more to some people than to others.”

We can look to adults to glean some possible answers. According to Lee, adults flatter because; (1) They are showing gratitude for some positive; or (2) They’re creating a bridge with someone whom they’re meeting for the first time in case that person could be important for their advancement later down the road—it’s viewed as an “investment” in their positive treatment from the other person in the future.

“We don’t know which the child is doing…They are thinking ahead, they are making these little social investments for future benefits.”

In my assessment, the children may also be reacting to other social beliefs that mean statements may “get them into trouble” and nice statements make others happy, which feels good to everyone. Lee previously studied the responses of children ages 3 to 11, who were given gifts they didn’t like. Findings suggest that even 3-year-olds tell white lies to avoid hurting the feelings of the gift-giver.

Regardless of the reason for the flattery, our society does indeed teach children that honesty isn’t always the best policy, even if we tell them that they should always tell the truth. Adults do it themselves. We spare the feelings of others by telling them we like the “great book” they gave us of the “beautiful scarf” they knitted for a friend. But Lee suggests the flattery is motivated by self-interest and can annoy those who watch it happening (i.e. when an employee is flattering the boss).

“Kids at 4 or 5 are able to make distinctions already – that this lie is bad but this one is not very bad.”

Note: Your children will be discussing the question; “is honesty always the best policy” in the 4th week of this month’s Powerful Words curriculum. Aside from flattery, and “good” secrets like surprise parties for family of friends, all Powerful Words Member Schools will be discussing honesty with regard to strangers. Questions like, “should we tell strangers our phone number and address?” (for young children) and “how honest should we be with strangers on line?” (for older students), among others, will be explored.

All Powerful Parents are encouraged to use the Powerful Words curriculum as a Springboard for discussion at home or in the car to discuss how honesty plays a role in your family’s life and what your policies on are with regard to lying and telling the truth in different situations (i.e. when they made a mistake, when grandma gives them a gift they don’t like, when a stranger approaches them and asks them personal information, etc.) Stay tuned to your Powerful Words member schools for additional information on this topic.

We’re looking forward to hearing your comments on this topic as well as any child development issue! Please put your questions and comments below so we can create a dialog on these topics!


*image from Jupiter images.

6 Responses

  1. Great to find another blog that provides resources to parents! I noticed your topic deals with honesty. Not too long ago we took this on in our weekly Parental Power conference call. If you or your readers are interested in our discussion, I’ve posted a recording on my blog at the following link. Keep up the good work!

  2. About a week ago I discovered that my 4 year old knows too much about her private part. Too much that it makes me wonder if my child was molested. She gave me so much details about where and what happened and she mentioned other girls names at daycare that were involved in what she calls “nappy changing time” game. I have contacted the authority and stopped her from attending that daycare which she was extremely attached to for some reason. She is now in a safe place. I have contacted the authority and they are not doing much. I am not concerned about the daycare but I am worried about the other children there. Yesterday I have spoken to the child’s main care provider that left to another daycare at the same time I have discovered this. She told me that my daughter has wild imaginations and I shouldn’t believe everything she told me. She also said that my daughter has been telling lies lately which is not a common practice amongst young children! I have started to doubt what my daughter told me at the beginning but she knows so many details that I just wouldn’t believe that her imaginations led to. Reading your article I believe that I am right in believing my child and following my instinct to protect her and prosecute that daycare. The teacher also said that on my daughters fourth birthday there were two visitors a lady and a man. She said that my daughter was looking at the man and sort of flirting and blushing. Can a 4 year old flirt? Please reply ASAP as this matter is driving me crazy!

  3. Shocked and confused,

    You are in a topic here that is troubling for a number of reasons. I have had a number of parents in my practice (which in the past has included evaluating sexual abuse cases) who have insisted strongly that children never lie. Well, anyone who pays any degree of attention to their children knows that’s not true. Children are also highly suggestible, and are very sensitive to the reinforcement that they get from particularly the big people in their life about what is expected or wanted from them. With that being said, as a parent you develop a sense of what is “normal” for your child. You are also generally familiar with what they have been exposed to within the context of your own home and family – so you just have to follow your gut sometimes when you are pretty sure that something is out of line. I’m definitely not in a position to give you specific advice about this – but can see that it is a tricky situation. Consult with people you can trust and stay tuned in to your own perceptions of what is fact and what is crap.

  4. Thank you for this extremely interesting discussion. I agree that parents often know in their gut when something doesn’t seem right. My impulse is to tell you to discuss this concern with your child’s doctor so that you can discuss a plan of action together. Dr. Paul is correct– we are not in any position to tell you what’s what– but your child’s doctor is in a great position to do so. Whether your child is lying or not, you’ve discovered that something is not quite right, correct? This is an important concern and it’s something that your doctor can help you discern.

    Let us know how everything goes-

    Dr. Robyn

  5. Thank you for your replies. I know for a fact that my very smart child makes lies when she wants to get something or to get away with something. But for a lie of this nature to come out of nowhere and opposing all the morals and values, we have as a family demonstrated to our daughter, is just shocking. I feel like she has been brain washed or reprogrammed in a very short period of time. Like you said I have discovered a problem and whether it is my daughter lying, a problem in her personality or something else I have to face the problem and work on it to correct it no matter how awful the truth is. We will be going to counseling next week, wish us luck. Thanks again.

  6. So glad to hear that you are addressing your concern. Keep us posted– and good luck!

    Dr. Robyn

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