If you want your child to be truthful, it’s best not to threaten punishment if she or he lies, a study suggests: children are more likely to tell the truth either to please an adult or because they believe it’s the right thing to do.
That’s what psychologists found through an experiment involving 372 children between the ages of 4 and 8.
“If children fear potential negative outcomes for disclosing information, they may be more reluctant to disclose,” the researchers, led by Victoria Talwar of McGill University in Canada, wrote in a paper for the Feb. 2015 issue of the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.
The researchers left each child alone in a room for a minute with a toy behind them on a table, having told the child not to peek during their absence. Experimenters told some of the children they would “be in trouble” if they lied about that, while for other youngsters the experimenters mentioned only positive reasons for telling the truth.
A hidden video camera filmed what went on while the child was alone. Upon returning, the experimenter would ask: “When I was gone, did you turn around and peak at the toy?”
About two-thirds of the children peeked, though for every one month increase in age, children became slightly less likely to peek, the study found. Moreover, about two-thirds of the peekers lied about having looked, and month-by-month as children aged, they both become more likely to tell lies and more adept at maintaining their lies.
The researchers also found that the threat of being “in trouble” alone led to more than twice the rate of lying as the appeals to conscience or good feelings alone. Combinations of both types of inducements led to in-between results.
The investigators also expected and found, they said, that while younger children were more focused on telling the truth to please the adults, older children had better internalized standards of behavior that made them tell the truth because it was the right thing to do.
“The bottom line is that punishment does not promote truth-telling,” said Talwar. “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.”