Honesty and Deception in Young Children - Truth and Lies

My child is lying. The Peeking Game and 5 ways to encourage the truth?

I recently read an interesting article that looked at the evolution of honesty and deception in young children, the study suggested that children around the age of 2 start learning how to lie. I thought to myself: “Great!! #JasperBean has just passed that milestone and I remember a few times where I know he was telling fibs in order to get what he wanted or to avoid punishment when he did something he knew I didn’t like”. Naturally, I wanted to nip this behaviour in the bud! So I started to do some reading to find ways to teach my son honesty is the best policy. This is not a short post, so if you’re pushed for time, skip to “some ways to prevent dishonesty”. If you do, please come back and read the full post when you have a few more extra minutes!

Understanding honesty and deception in young children:

Lying is actually an acquired skill, we’re not born knowing how to lie or the impact it has. Did you know it is an important social skill that we master day in day out? Remember the time when you told your child that you should thank the person who has given them a present and/or to tell them they loved it when actually they thought it was rubbish? (Maybe it was you who said it!) or the times when you lied about how many glasses of wine you had on a night out? Or why you were late for a date/meeting. Truth is, we all tell “white” lies. These are porkies we tell to be polite to others or to prevent harming their feelings. Lying is a skill, it is a skill that develops as a child’s cognitive and social understanding matures. Lying is easy, but trying to convince others of your lies is difficult.

A research by Dr. Talwar and Dr. Lee found that 74% of children couldn’t follow through with their initial lie after further questioning. This understanding of following through with a lie is something that develops with age (80% in 3-4-year-olds followed through when further questioned, 70% in 5-year-olds and 50% in 6-7-year-olds). Research has also demonstrated that pre-school children who are more likely to lie have a higher level of IQ and tend to have better social skills as well, so learning when to lie and how to do so convincingly is very important in order to fit in with society, but persistent liars are also signs of children who have not matured socially and cognitively as much as their peers. The saying “You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t” springs to mind.



So what should we do when our little cherubs learn to lie? How can we instill that honesty is the best policy and that lying does not resolve issues?

“The Peeking Game”

Associate Professor, Dr. Victoria Talwar at  McGill University, Quebec created “The Peeking Game” to study and understand the behaviour of children who were lying. Researchers took children to a small room to play a guessing game, the child would then stand/sit with their back towards the researcher while they brought out items of toys. The child had to guess what the item was based on the sound it made. If the child was able to guess correctly 3 times, they would win a prize.

The first 2 rounds were deliberately designed to be easy – the researcher would bring out familiar toys, such as cars and dolls. The final round was intentionally designed to trip them up. The researcher would bring out an item such as a football and a musical card. The card was opened to allow the music to play and then closed and hidden under the ball. This obviously creates confusion for the child and before the child is able to make their guess, the researcher would excuse himself from the room, but before he leaves, he reminds the child not to peek. Once the researcher has left, he monitors the child’s behaviour through a CCTV and returns to continue the game after a couple of minutes. If the child then answers “football”, they will be asked whether they peeked whilst the researcher was away.

Results indicate that among 3 years old, only a third peeked and even if they did, the majority would admit to it. On the other hand, in the 4 years old age group, around 80% peeked, lied and denied their actions. Dr. Talwar reckons that children lying is an intellectual development whereby the child recognises the truth and then conceptualises a nonexistent facade to then persuade others to believe this false imagery. In order to do this, a certain amount of cognitive and communicative capability is required.

Right, so you say, my kid lies, that’s great! It means their intelligence is developing well and I should be happy! Ok, so how do we get children to understand the importance of honesty thus choosing, to tell the truth instead?

Dr. Talwar also tried this in her experiment:

Before the researcher asked the child whether they had peeked, the researcher divided the children who did peek into 2 groups. Those in group one were told the story of “The Boy who cried Wolf”* (This story is about a shepherd boy and his sheep’s who were eaten because of his lies). The second group was told, “Washington’s Cherry Tree” (This story is about George Washington telling the truth and making his father really happy). After listening to the story, the researcher then asked the children whether they had peeked. The percentage of kids lying in group one increased whereas those who in group 2 decreased by more than 50%. Why did this happen? Dr. Talwar explains that more children in group one lied because the message picked up in the story “The Boy who cried Wolf” is that the shepherd was punished because he did something wrong, so the child would think, in order to avoid punishment, I must not let them find out I peeked. Contrary, in “Washington’s Cherry Tree”, honesty makes people happy, therefore children are more willing to tell the truth after listening to the story.

So, am I expected to read a story to my child when I clearly know he’s lying? If I already know the result, shouldn’t I punish him to let him know this behaviour is unacceptable? If you are in the “dishing out punishment” camp, read on…

Dr. Talwar also tried to recreate this study in a school in West Africa where physical punishment was the norm, for example, if the child did not do their homework or forgot to bring their stationary, they may receive physical punishment. The study revealed that children who regularly received severe punishment are more likely to learn to lie at an early age and more frequently too. Their thought process also becomes more complex, for example, when the child actually peeked and knew the answer was “football”, they also considered that if they can gave the correct answer to such a tricky answer, then they may well easily be called out for peeking. Therefore will pretend to guess incorrectly and also deny they had peeked.

Dr. Talwar concludes that majority of the time, children lie because they want to hide the fact they did something wrong, they are scared that they may receive punishment if their actions were revealed and parents mistakenly believe that punishment can correct their wrong behaviour/action. Therefore the more severe punishment they receive, the more it actually makes the child lie.

What children need the most is the approval from their parents/elders, so lying is their way to avoid their parents’ disapproval.



Hence, if I don’t punish my child, my child won’t lie?

Of course not and it’s not that simple because when young children do something wrong, they know it will upset their parents/elders. Therefore just forgiving their wrongdoing does not sufficiently incentivise them to speak the truth. It is suggested that if you want your child to confess, you should reassure them that they won’t be in trouble and that truthfulness makes you happy.

Target Text

The words, attitude, and method used by the adult can greatly influence whether a child chooses, to tell the truth, or lie. How? Let’s look at some ways to prevent dishonesty, including 3 approaches that render different results:

1. Communication:

Method A: “If you are willing to tell the truth, I [the mum/dad etc.] will be very happy.”

Result: 50% of children are more likely to speak the truth. Why? Because telling the truth leads to positive consequences – in this case – the child makes mum/dad etc. happy. (Washington’s Cherry Tree).

Method B: “Telling the truth is the right thing to do.”

Result: If you had promised the child that they wouldn’t get punished, 60% of children will choose to tell the truth, but if you explicitly stated that there will be punishment, 80% of children will lie.

Method C: Ask the child directly, with no mention of anything else.

Result: 80% of children will choose to lie.

2. Empathy:

Acceptance and reassurance are very important. If a child believes they have failed at something, give them a cuddle and say “It doesn’t matter what’s happened, mummy/daddy will accept and support you”. Let them realise that even when they fail or aren’t perfect – there is still someone who will accept them for who they are. Therefore they do not feel the need to pretend and lie, they can just be themselves in front of you.

3. Books:

Make use of available resources such as books. Consider reading a lighthearted book such as Nicola Killen’s Not Me to illustrate the issue of truthfulness. Other books include:

4. Listen, stop and train/practice self-discipline:

If you suspect your child is lying, try stopping them mid-way through. Why? Because sometimes children get carried away when they are trying to tell their side of the story and don’t know how to stop. You may say:  “Mummy/Daddy hear what you are saying, but stop talking for a minute and have a think. Just tell me the parts that you are sure happened.”  Their imagination and lack of self-control mean they blurt out words and often stray from the truth without much thought. This is not intentional and they don’t mean it, but don’t let it become a habit.

5. Be a good role model

Our children learn from us, if we can demonstrate to them that telling the truth is the right thing to do, they are more than likely to follow in your footsteps. So please! Don’t force your child to say anything that they don’t want to, just because you want to be polite.

 I haven’t even scraped the surface of this huge topic, but I have learned that there are many ways to encourage honesty that does not require physical punishment, threats or bribery. #JasperBean is only a toddler and far too young to be punished for lying, therefore as his parent I can only begin to subtly encourage truthfulness from an early age. What other methods do you use to encourage honesty? I would love to know!

Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment”. Proverbs 12:19

Thanks for reading! Until next time…

Love… MsMamaBean x

Please note: what I have listed above are just a few ways of many to stop a child from lying. I do not claim any of those methods as mine.

This post may contain affiliate links. Please refer to my Disclosure on the sidebar.

Sources

Talwar, V., Arruda, C., Yachison, S. (2015). The effects of punishment and appeals for honesty on children’s truth-telling behavior. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 130, 209-217.

Talwar, V., Crossman A. (2011). From little white lies to filthy liars: the evolution of honesty and deception in young children. Advances in Child Development and Behavior, 40, 139-79. Review.

Talwar, V., Lee, K. (2002). Development of lying to conceal a transgression: Children’s control of expressive behaviour during verbal deception. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 26, 436-444.

Feldman R.S., Tomasian J.C., Coats E.J. (1999). Nonverbal Deception Abilities and Adolescents’ Social Competence: Adolescents with Higher Social Skills are Better Liars. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 23, 237–249




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32 comments

  1. Kristina@thelordandthelady.com

    This was very interesting. I hope I can apply these tips to my girls. They are very different learners and I wonder what would be best.

    Reply

    1. MsMamaBean

      I agree! This really is based on how they perceive the message, a method that works on one may not always work on another. There is no one size fits all. Experience and trial and error will reveal what is best for our children.

      Reply

  2. Mummy Times Two

    My mum was very keen to teach me that lying was unacceptable. I can on,y ever remember lying to her once, she knew immediately and sent me to bed with a tuna (my least favourite food) sandwich for tea. I never risked doing it again!

    Reply

    1. MsMamaBean

      We are all definitely unique creatures and learn so differently! Thanks for sharing your experience!

      Reply

  3. talkingmums1

    It’s a tricky subject isn’t it? I try to encourage my daughter to tell the truth, I tell her that it’s better to tell the truth than lie as lies can have consequences (shes 5). When she lies I’ll discuss with her how it would have been better to tell the truth. My daughter will say she’s washed her face when it’s clear she hasn’t!
    #Blogstravaganza

    Reply

    1. MsMamaBean

      Definitely tricky! My boy is only 2 and we’re just at the beginning of this chapter, but I’m really looking forward to see how we grow and evolve together.

      Reply

  4. RawMum

    A very interesting read, thank you for including the sources too. Much here to think about #blogstravaganza

    Reply

    1. MsMamaBean

      Thank you. The sources are important as I’m not claiming any of this to be mine, just transferring research and thoughts. If you have time, give the sources a read too, you may interpret them different to me. X

      Reply

  5. thetaleofmummyhood

    This is great! We haven’t reached this stage yet, but I’m pinning for future reference! Thanks so much for sharing with #Blogstravaganza xx

    Reply

    1. MsMamaBean

      Thanks for having me and sharing too!

      Reply

  6. Eileen Lamb

    Great post. Thanks for the tips!

    Reply

  7. Shelby @Fitasamamabear

    Oi. This is one of those tricky parent moments where you’re happy they’re developing understanding more buuuttt not in an awesome way. Thanks for the tips!

    Reply

  8. maketravelreality

    Interesting for the future! thanks

    Reply

  9. thehouseturnedhome

    Wow, I’ve never before realized that lying can be a good thing in a way! I like that you used statistics and quotes to validate your reasoning, and your ways on handling a lying child are great.

    Reply

  10. fionarabbit2013

    This is the first time I’ve visited your blog and I really enjoy reading about your experiences. I agree that encouraging truth is more effective than punishing lies. It is also vital, as you’ve said, to communicate to our children in a positive manner and set good examples for them. Thank you for such a detailed and well-written blog post!

    Reply

    1. MsMamaBean

      Thank you for your comment, it really means a lot to me and I hope you find the time to return in the future 🙂

      Reply

  11. Kanani B.

    This is interesting and I’m glad you mentioned different methods. I don’t think any one method is perfect but a combination of some/all would be the best way to go about preventing/limiting dishonesty.

    Reply

    1. MsMamaBean

      There definitely is not a one size fits all category/method. We gotta try everything to see what gives us the best result!

      Reply

  12. nataleelee1

    I’m getting to this point with my son he hasn’t told me blatant lies yet, but I am seeing him display evasive behavior.
    I think lying is pretty inherent. It comes out when we are within the paradigm of good and bad. We reward good and punish bad, we then place our children in that same frame; sometimes unintentionally. To protect, and preserve themselves and sometimes others they lie.
    I completely agree, punishment does not correct behavior, rather I think it causes the same negative behaviors to be displayed differently. Punishment, however, is very important. Our behaviors have consequences, and as such chastisement & a dose of spanking is necessary.
    I enjoyed your post and I will be taking your tips to heart. I’ve got some books to get.

    Reply

    1. MsMamaBean

      Thank you for your comment. I believe it is as much a learning curve for our little ones as it is for ourselves. We try to do what we think is right, but sometimes when I’m stuck in the moment, I find myself unable to control my emotions. I’ve definitely got a lot of room for improvement. x

      Reply

  13. fasetto

    What a great article! We’ve been dealing with this and I believe this will be very helpful. Thank you

    Reply

  14. Megan Bidmead (@whispertoroar)

    This is a great post, fascinating and really useful! I find that trying to understand children’s thought processes and stages of development really help me to relate to my children better. #DreamTeam

    Reply

    1. MsMamaBean

      Agree, our children need us to understand them, especially when they aren’t able to fully express themselves. Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply

  15. Tina @Pixels by Tina

    Great info! Will come handy with my 2 & 4 year old! 🙂

    Reply

  16. Chemady

    Great writeup. I have learnt new things from this post.

    Reply

    1. MsMamaBean

      Thanks for reading! x

      Reply

  17. runawaywidow

    This was a well researched piece. I teach kindergarten and notice this so much. I like the part,don’t let it become a habit. Yes

    Reply

  18. meanwhilewith

    This is a great post! I don’t have any children of my own but I am a teacher and I struggle with the whole honesty thing from a lot of my students. I think your post will definitely help me in the future. Thanks for writing!

    Reply

    1. MsMamaBean

      Thank you and I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

      Reply

  19. debsrandomwritings

    Hi Nita, a very interesting post. Children will lie, but how it’s handled does play a huge part in how often. A child must know that it is okay to tell the truth without fear of punishment, it’s up to the adult to realise the best way to handle the truth. A difficult balance!

    Thank you for linking up with the ‘#MMBC.

    XX

    Reply

  20. hjsburnett

    Very interesting! Thanks for the suggestions! #dreamteam

    Reply

  21. pinkpearbear

    Wow, this is fascinating. I love all the studies and this is a very interesting one. I must try it out on my children! Thanks for joining us at the #bigpinklink this week.

    Reply

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