little girl peeks through her fingers

Threats don’t stop kids from lying

If you don’t want your children to tell lies, don’t threaten to punish them if they do.

Children are more likely to tell the truth because they want to please an adult or because they just believe it’s the right thing to do—not because of any promised repercussions, researchers say.

For a new study involving 372 children between the ages of 4 and 8, researchers left each child alone in a room for one minute with a toy behind them on a table.

The children, who were videotaped, were told not to peek at the toy while they were alone.

When the researchers returned, they asked the child, a simple question: “When I was gone, did you turn around and peek at the toy?”

Slightly more than two-thirds of the children peeked at the toy (67.5 percent or 251 children out of the 372 who were involved in the experiment). For every one-month increase in age, children became slightly less likely to peek.

When the children were asked whether or not they had peeked, again about two-thirds of them lied (167 children or 66.5 percent). Month by month as children aged, they both become more likely to tell lies and more adept at maintaining them.

Punishment can backfire

The researchers say it’s interesting that the children were less likely to tell the truth if they were afraid of being punished than if they were asked to tell the truth either because it would please the adult, or because it was the right thing to do and would make the child feel good.

They expected and found to be true that while younger children are more focused on telling the truth to please an adult, older children have better internalized standards of behavior which made them tell the truth because it was the right thing to do.

“The bottom line is that punishment does not promote truth-telling,” says Victoria Talwar, professor of educational and counseling psychology at McGill University.

“In fact, the threat of punishment can have the reverse effect by reducing the likelihood that children will tell the truth when encouraged to do so. This is useful information for all parents of young children and for the professionals like teachers who work with them and want to encourage young children to be honest.”

The study is published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

Source: McGill University