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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
- The Boy who cried Wolf
- Washington’s Cherry Tree
- The Emporers New wardrobe
- The Bible
- Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11)
- Abraham hides the truth (Genesis 20:1-28)
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.
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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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