Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/October 1895/Studies of Childhood XI

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WE may now turn to the other main charge against children, that of lying. According to many, children are in general accomplished little liars, to the manner born, and equally adept with the mendacious savage. Even writers on childhood by no means prejudiced against them lean to the view that untruth is universal among children and to some extent at least innate.[1]

Here, surely, there is need of discrimination. A lie connotes, or should connote, an assertion made with full consciousness of its untruth and in order to mislead. It may well be doubted whether little children have so clear an apprehension of what we understand by truth and falsity as to be liars in this full sense. Much of what seems shocking to the adult unable to place himself at the level of childish intelligence and feeling will probably prove to be something far less serious. It is satisfactory to note a tendency to take a milder and more reasonable view of this infantile fibbing; and what follows is based upon the excellent recent studies of Dr. Stanley Hall and M. Compayré.[2]

It is desirable to inspect a little more closely the various forms of this early mendacity. To begin with those little ruses and dissimulations which according to M. Perez are apt to appear almost from the cradle in the case of certain children, it is plainly difficult to bring them under the category of full-fledged lies. When, for example, a child wishing to keep a thing hides it, and on your asking for it holds out its empty hands, it would be hard to say that this was a lie, even though there is a germ of deception in the action. We must remember that children have an early developed instinct to secrete things, and the little dissimulations in these actions may be a mere outcome of this hiding propensity, and the accompanying wish that you should not get the hidden thing. Refusals to tell secrets, or, as C—— called them, "private secrets" (a fine distinction), show the same thing. A child, when badgered, is most jealous in guarding what he has been told, or what his fancy has made a secret. The little ruses or "acted lies" to which I am now referring seem to me at the worst an attempt to put off the scent in what is regarded as a private matter, and to have the minimum of intentional deception.

More distinct marks of mendacity appear when the child comes to use language and offers statements which if he reflected he might know to be false. It may readily be thought that no child who has the intelligence to make statements at all could make false ones without some little consciousness of the falsity. But here I suspect we judge harshly, applying adult tests to cases where they are inappropriate. Anybody who has observed children's play and dramatic talk and knows how readily and completely they can imagine the nonexistent so as to lose sight of the existent, will be chary of using the word lie. There may be solemn sticklers for truth who would be shocked to hear the child in play saying, "I am a coachman," "Dolly is crying," and so forth. But the discerning see nothing to be alarmed at here. Similarly, when a little girl of two years and six months, after running over a pretty long series of sounds devoid of all meaning, said, "It's because you don't understand me, papa." Here the love of mystery and secrecy, aided by the dramatic impulse, made the nonsense real talk. The wee thing doubtless had a feeling of superiority in talking in a language which was unintelligible to her all-wise papa.

On much the same level of moral obliquity are those cases where a child will say the opposite of what it is told, turning authoritative utterances upside down. A quaint instance is quoted by Compayré from Guyau. Guyau's little boy (age not given) was overheard saying to himself, "Papa parle mal, il a dit sevette; bébé parle bien, il dit serviette." Such reversals are a kind of play too; the child is weary of being told he is wrong, and for the moment imagines himself right and his elders wrong, immensely enjoying the idea.

A graver-looking case presents itself when an "untruth" is uttered in answer to a question. C——, on being asked by his mother who told him something, answered "Dolly." False, and knowingly false, somebody will say, especially when he learns that the depraved youngster instantly proceeded to laugh. But let us look a little closer. The question had raised in C——'s little mind the idea that somebody had told him. This is a process of suggestion, which as we shall see presently, sways a child's mind as it sways that of the hypnotized adult. And there close by the child was Dolly, and the child's make-believe includes, as we all know, much important communication with Dolly. What more natural than that the idea should at once seize his imagination? But the laugh? Well, I am ready to admit that there was a touch of playful defiance here, of childish mischief. The expression on the mother's face showed him that his bold, absurd fancy had produced its half-startling, half-amusing effect; and there is nothing your little actor likes more than this after effect of startling you. But more, it gave him at the same instant a glimpse of the outside look of his fancy, of the unreality of the untruth; and the laugh probably had in it the delight of the little rebel, of the naughty, impish rogue who loves now and then to set law at defiance.

Momentary vivid fancy, the childish passion for acting a part, this backed by a strong desire to startle, and a turn for playful rebellion, seems to me to account for this and other similar varieties of early misstatement. Naughty they no doubt are in a measure; but is it not just that playing at being naughty which has in it nothing really bad, and is removed toto cœlo from downright honest lying? I speak the more confidently as to C—— 's case, as I happen to know that he was in his serious moods particularly, one might add pedantically, truthful.

A somewhat different case is where the vivid fancy underlying the misstatement leads to a more serious self-deception. The Worcester collection gives an example: "I was giving some cough sirup, and E——, aged three years and two months, ran to me, saying, 'I am sick too, and I want some medicine.' She then tried to cough. Every time she would see me taking the sirup bottle afterward, she would begin to cough. The sirup was very sweet." This looks simply awful. But what if the child were of so imaginative a turn that the sight of* the sirup given to the sick child produced a perfect illusion of being herself sick—an illusion strong enough to cause the irritation and the cough? The idea may seem far-fetched, but deserves to be considered before we brand the child with the name liar.

The vivid, fanciful realization, which in this instance was sustained by the love of sweet things, is in many cases inspired by other and later developed feelings. How much false statement—and that not only among little children—is of the nature of exaggeration and directed to producing a strong effect! When, for example, the little four-year-old draws himself up and shouts exultantly, "See, mamma, how tall I am—I am growing so fast I shall soon be a giant," or boasts of his strength, and tells you the impossible things he is going to do, the element of braggadocio is on the surface and imposes on nobody.

No doubt these propensities, though not amounting in the stage of development now dealt with to full lying, may, if not restrained, develop into true lying. An unbridled fancy and strong love of effect will lead an older child to say what it vaguely knows at the time to be false in order to startle and mystify others. Such exaggeration of these impulses is distinctly abnormal, as may be seen by its affinity to what we can observe in the case of the insane. The same is true of the exaggeration of the vainglorious or "showing-off" impulses, as illustrated, for example, in the cases mentioned by Dr. Stanley Hall of children who, on going to a new town or school, would assume new characters which were kept up with difficulty by means of many false pretenses.[3]

A fertile source of childish untruth, especially in the case of girls, is the wish to please. Here we have to do with very dissimilar things. An emotional child who, in a sudden fit of tenderness for mother, aunt, or teacher, gushes out, "Oh, I do love you! "or" What sweet, lovely eyes you have!" or other pretty flattery, may be sincere for the moment, the exaggeration being indeed the outcome of a sudden ebullition of feeling. There is more of acting and artfulness in the flatteries which take their rise in a calculating wish to say the nice, agreeable things. Some children are, I believe, adepts at these amenities. Those in whom the impulse is strong and dominant are presumably those who, in later years, make the good society actors. In all this childish simulation and exaggeration we have to do with the germs of what may become a great moral evil—insincerity—that is, falsity in respect of what is best and ought to be sacred. Yet this childish flattery, though undoubtedly a mild mendacity, is a most amiable mendacity through its charming motives, always supposing that it is a pure wish to please and is not complicated with an arrière pensée—the hope of gaining some favor from the object of the devotion. Perhaps there is no variety of childish fault more difficult to deal with, if only for the reason that in checking the impulse we are robbing ourselves of the sweetest offerings of childhood.

The other side of this wish to please is the fear to give offense, and this, I suspect, is a fertile source of childish prevarication. If, for example, a child is asked whether he does not like or admire something, his feeling that the questioner expects him to say "Yes" makes it very hard to say "No" Mrs. Burnett gives us a reminiscence of this early experience. When she was less than three, she writes, a lady visitor, a friend of her mother, having found out that the baby newly added to the family was called Edith, remarked to her: "That's a pretty name. My baby is Eleanor. Isn't that a pretty name?" On being thus questioned she felt in a dreadful difficulty, for she did not like the sound of "Eleanor," and yet feared to be rude and say so. She got out of it by saying she did not like the name as well as "Edith."

These temptations and struggles, which may impress themselves on memory for the whole of life, illustrate the influence of older persons' wishes and expectations on children's statements. It is possible that we have here to do with something akin to "suggestion," that force which produces such amazing results on the hypnotized subject, and which is known to be a potent influence for good or for evil on the young mind. A leading question of the form: "Isn't this pretty?" "Aren't you fond of me?" may easily overpower for a moment the child's own conviction, superimposing that of the stronger mind. Such passive statements coming from a mind overridden by another's authority are not to be confused with conscious falsehoods.

This suggestion often combines with other forces. Here is a good example: A little American girl, sent into the oak shrubbery to get a leaf, saw a snake, which so frightened her that she ran home without the leaf. As cruel Fate would have it, she met her brothers and told them she had seen a "sauger." "They knew" (writes the lady who recalls this reminiscence of her childhood) "a difference between snakes and their habits, and, boylike, wanted to tease me, and said, 'Twas no sauger—it didn't have a red ring round its neck, now, did it?' My heated imagination saw just such a serpent as soon as their words were spoken, and I declared it had a ring about its neck." In this way she was led on to say that it had scars and a little bell on its neck, and was soundly rated by her brothers as a "liar."[4] Here we have a case of "illusion of memory" induced by suggestion acting on a mind made preternaturally sensitive by the fear from which it had not yet recovered. If there was a germ of mendacity in the case, it must have sprung from the half-conscious shrinking from the brothers' ridicule, the wish not to seem utterly ignorant about these boyish matters, the snakes. Yet who would say that such swift, unseizable movements of feeling in the dim background of consciousness made the child's quick responses lies in the proper sense of the word?

It seems paradoxical, yet is, I believe, indisputable, that a large part of childish untruth comes upon the scene in connection with moral authority and discipline. We shall see by and by that unregenerate child-nature is very apt to take up the hostile attitude of self-defense toward those who administer law and inflict punishment, Even the mother herself, beloved as she undoubtedly is, comes in for this antagonism. When the moral régime is severe and something like dread of punishment arises, the problem of self-protection is wont to be solved by well-known devices in the shape of subterfuges. In this way a child will say, "I didn't hear you," when a command is given and not at once obeyed; "I didn't make the mess, it was my hand," and so forth. Quite young children will find their way to little ruses and deceits of this sort when brought face to face with a sharp-faced threatening authority. Thus a mite of three, having in a moment of temper called her mother "monkey," and being questioned as to what she had said, replied, "I said I was a monkey." In some cases the child does not wait to be questioned. A little girl mentioned by Compayré, being put out at something the mother had done or said, cried "Nasty!" (vilaine); then, after a significant silence, corrected herself in this wise: "Dolly nasty" (poupée vilaine). The skill with which this transference was effected without any violence to grammar argues a precocious art.

I do not wish to say that these prevarications, these dodges for getting out of obedience, or, if disobedience has been detected, of evading punishment, are not rightly named untruths. With every wish to excuse children's peccadillos one can not but recognize here a rudiment of the wish and intention to deceive.

Yet surely it is a matter deserving of reflection that our modes of governing (or misgoverning) children so frequently develop these tricky prevarications. It is not too much to say that anything in the nature of a brutal and terrifying government drives children to these subterfuges as their only resource. I at least should never blame a child greatly for trying to save himself by an untruth with the terror of the "giant" armed with stick or cane hanging over him.

Our moral discipline may develop untruth in another way. When the punishment has been inflicted and the governor, relenting from the brutal harshness, asks, "Are you sorry?" or "Aren't you sorry?" the answer is exceedingly likely to be "No," even though this is in a sense untrue. More clearly is this lying of obstinacy seen where a child is shut up and kept without food. Asked, "Are you hungry?" the hardy little sinner stifles his sensations and pluckily answers "No," even though the low and dismal character of the sound shows that the untruth is but a half-hearted affair.

There is much even yet to be done in clearing up the modus operandi of children's lies. How quick, for example, is a child to find out the simple good-natured people, as the servant-maid or gardener, who will listen to his romancing and flatter him by appearing to accept it all as gospel! More significant is the fact that intentional deception is apt to show itself toward certain people only. There is many a schoolboy who would think it no dishonor to say what is untrue to those he dislikes, especially by way of getting them into hot water, though he would feel it mean and base to lie to his mother or his father, and bad form to lie to the head master. Similar distinctions show themselves in earlier stages, and are another point of similarity between the child and the savage, whose ideas of truthfulness seem to be truthfulness for my people only. This is a side of the subject which would repay fuller inquiry.

Another aspect of the subject which has been but little investigated is the influence of habit in the domain of lying and the formation of persistent permanent lies. The impulse to stick to an untruth when once uttered is very human, and in the case of the child is enforced by the fear of discovery. This applies not only to falsehoods foisted on persons in authority, but to those by which clever boys and girls take pleasure in befooling the inferior wits of others. In this way there grow up in the nursery and in the playground traditional myths and legends which are solemnly believed by the simple-minded. Such invention is in part the outcome of the "pleasures of the imagination." Yet it is probable that this is in all cases re-enforced not only by the wish to produce a showy effect, but by the love of power which in the child not endowed with physical prowess is apt to show itself in hoodwinking and practical joking.

Closely connected with this establishment of permanent falsehoods is the contagiousness of lying. The propagation of falsehood is apt to be promoted by a certain tremulous admiration for the hardihood of the lie and by the impulse of the rebel which never quite slumbers even in the case of fairly obedient children. I suspect, however, that it is in all cases largely due to the force of suggestion. The falsehood boldly anounced is apt to captivate the mind and hold it under a kind of spell.

This effect of suggestion in generating falsehood is very marked in those pathological or semi-pathological cases where children have been led to give false testimony. It is now known that it is quite possible to provoke in children between the ages of six and fifteen by simple affirmation, whether in the waking or in the sleeping state, illusions of memory, so that they are ready to assert that they saw things happen which they had never seen.[5]

So much as to the several manners and circumstances of childish lying. In order to understand still better what it amounts to, how much of conscious falsehood enters into it, we must glance at another and closely related phenomenon—the pain which sometimes attends and follows it.

There is no doubt that a certain number of children experience qualms of conscience in uttering falsehood. This is evidenced in the well-known devices by which the intelligence of the child thinks to mitigate the lie, as when on saying what he knows to be false he adds mentally, "I do not mean it," "in my mind," or some similar palliative.[6] Such dodges show a measure of sensibility—a hardened liar would despise the shifts—and are curious as illustrations of the childish conscience and its unlearned casuistry.

The remorse that sometimes follows lying, especially the first lie which catches the conscience at its tenderest, has been remembered by many in later life. Here is a case: A lady friend remembers that when a child of four she had to wear a shade over her eyes. One day, on walking out with her mother, she was looking, child-wise, sideward instead of in front, and nearly struck a lamp-post. Her mother then scolded her, but presently, remembering the eyes, said, "Poor child, you could not see well." She knew that this was not the reason, but she accepted it, and for long afterward was tormented with a sense of having told a lie. Miss Wiltse, who tells the story of the mythical snake, gives another recollection which illustrates the keen suffering of a child when it becomes fully conscious of falsehood. She was as a small child very fond of babies, and had been permitted by her mother to go, when invited by her aunt, to nurse a baby cousin. One day, wanting much to go when not invited, she boldly invented, saying that her aunt was busy and had asked her to spend an hour with the baby. "I went," she adds, "not to the baby, but by a circuitous route to my father's barn, crept behind one of the great doors, which I drew as close to me as I could, vainly wishing that the barn and the haystacks would cover me; then I cried and moaned I do not know how many hours, and when I went to bed I said my prayers between sobs, refusing to tell my mother why I wept."[7]

Such examples of remorse are evidence of a child's capability of knowingly stating what is false. This is strikingly shown in Miss Wiltse's two reminiscences, for she distinctly tells us that in the case of her confident assertion about the imaginary snake with ring and bell she felt no remorse, as she was not conscious of uttering a lie. But these sufferings of conscience point to something else—a sense of awful wickedness, of having done violence to all that is right and holy. How, it may be asked, does it happen that children feel thus morally crushed after telling a lie?

Here is a question that can only be answered when we have more material. We know that lying is, among all childish offenses, the one which is apt to be specially branded by theological sanctions. The physical torments with which the "lying tongue" is threatened may well beget terror in a timid child's heart. I think it likely, too, that the awfulness of lying is thought of by children in its relation to the all-seeing God, who, though he can not be lied to, knows when we lie. Possibly the inaudible palliative words added to the lie are specially intended to put the speaker straight with the heart-searching God.

Further inquiry is, however, needed here. Do children contract a horror of a lie when no religious terrors are introduced? Is there anything in the workings of a child's own mind which would lead it to feel, after its first lie, as if the stable world were tumbling about its ears? Let parents supply us with facts here.

Meanwhile I will venture to put forth a conjecture, and will gladly withdraw it as soon as it is disproved.

So far as my inquiries have gone, I do not find that children brought up at home and kept from the contagion of bad example do uniformly develop a lying propensity. Several mothers assure me that their children have never seriously propounded an untruth. I can say the same about two children who have been especially observed for the purpose.[8]

This being so, I distinctly challenge the assertion that lying is instinctive in the sense that a child, even when brought up among habitual truth-tellers, shows an unlearned aptitude to say what it knows to be false.

I go further and suggest that where a child is brought up normally—that is, in a habitually truth-speaking community—he tends quite apart from moral instruction to acquire a respect for truth as what is customary. Consider for a moment how busily a child's mind is occupied during the first years of linguistic performance in getting at the bottom of words, of fitting ideas to words when trying to understand others, and words to ideas when trying to express his own thoughts, and you will see that all this must serve to make truth—that is, the correspondence of statement with facts—something matter-of-course, something not to be questioned, a law wrought into the very usages of daily life which he never thinks of disobeying. We can see that children accustomed to truth-speaking show all the signs of a moral shock when they are confronted with assertions which, as they see, do not answer to fact. The child C—— was highly indignant' on hearing from his mother that people said what he considered false things about horses and other matters of interest; and he was even more indignant at meeting with any such falsity in one of his books, for which he had all a child's respect. The idea of perpetrating a knowing untruth, so far as I can judge, is simply awful to a child who has been thoroughly habituated to the practice of truthful statement. May it, then, not well be that when a preternatural pressure of circumstances pushes the child over the boundary line of truth, he feels shock, horror, a giddy and aching sense of having violated law—law not imposed by the mother's command, but rooted in the very habits of social life? I think the conjecture is well worth considering.

Our inquiry has led us to recognize, in the case of cruelty and of lying alike, that children are by no means morally perfect; they have tendencies which, if not counteracted or held in check by others, will develop into true cruelty and true lying. On the other hand, our study has shown us that these impulses are not the only ones. A child has impulses of kindness, which alternate, often in a capricious-looking way, with those of inconsiderate teasing and tormenting; and he has, I hold, side by side with the imaginative and other tendencies which make for untruthful statement, the instinctive roots of a respect for truth. These tendencies have not the same relative strength and frequency of utterance in the case of all children, some showing, for example, more of the impulse which makes for truth, others more of the impulse which makes for untruth. Yet in all children probably both kinds of impulse are to be observed. All which means that the child is at first a congeries of uncoordinated propensities, some favorable, others unfavorable, to what we mean by goodness, and that education has to transform this into a moral organism in which the tendencies to the good shall become supreme and act controllingly on the tendencies to the bad.


The English Chemical Society has conferred its Faraday medal on Lord Rayleigh in recognition of the investigation that has led to the discovery of argon. Chemists have before this made excursions into the domain of physics; but Lord Rayleigh, a physicist and mathematician, has turned the tables upon them by making a discovery of first-rate importance in the domain of chemical inquiry. His work is the more remarkable because it was carried on on purely physical lines. It is curious to reflect that only lack of needful delicacy in measurement delayed for one hundred and ten years the discovery on the threshold of which Cavendish stood in 1785.
  1. See the quotations from Montaigne and Perez given by Compayré, op. cit., p. 309 ff.
  2. Stanley Hall, Children's Lies, American Journal of Psychology, 1890. Compayré, op. cit., p. 309 ff.
  3. Article Children's Lies, p. 67.
  4. Sara E. Wiltse, The Christian Union, vol. xl, No. 26.
  5. M. Motet was one of the first to call attention to the forces of childish imagination, and the effects of suggestion in the false testimonies of children. Les faux temoignages des enfants devant la justice, 1887. The subject has been further elucidated by Dr. Bérillon.
  6. See Stanley Hall, op. cit., p. 68 f.
  7. Loc. cit.
  8. Dr. Stanley Hall, when he speaks of certain forms of lying as prevalent among children, is, as he expressly explains, speaking of children at school, where the forces of contagion are in full swing.