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Parents Can’t Tell When Their Kids Are Lying

New research finds adults — especially parents — tend to assume children are telling the truth.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Ikhlasul Amal/Flickr)

Your little angels wouldn’t lie to you, would they? Well, parents, you’d better hope not. Because if they do, you’re probably not going to realize it.

That’s the conclusion of a new study, which finds adults vastly overestimate their ability to detect when kids are lying. What’s more, this “truth bias” is much stronger among parents who are judging the veracity of their own children.

In the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, a research team led by Brock University psychologist Angela Evans describes a study in which participants judged the truthfulness of eight- to 16-year-olds.

The youngsters “were asked not to look at the answers to a test, and were later asked whether they had peeked.” Their answers were put on tape; participants watched 23 videos in which a child answered truthfully, and 23 in which he or she lied.

Adults vastly overestimate their ability to detect when kids are lying.

The kids’ truthfulness was judged by a group of 72 parents, and a group of 79 undergraduates who were not parents. Their answers were compared to those of an earlier study in which 80 parents judged the truthfulness of their own child’s response.

“All groups were highly confident in their judgments,” the researchers report. But that confidence was often not justified.

“None of the groups was significantly above chance at detecting the veracity of (the kids’) statements,” Evans and her colleagues write. What’s more, those parents who were judging their own children’s truthfulness were “significantly worse than the other groups at detecting lies.”

That finding “may reflect a rigid and perhaps biased perception (by parents) of their own children, based on previous experiences,” the researchers explain. This confidence in their kids’ truthfulness leads parents to be less suspicious than is perhaps warranted, “allowing for their children to successfully deceive them.”

The results are basically consistent with those of a 2009 study, which found “adults’ accuracy for detecting children’s true statements was below chance.” Interestingly, that research found older children were ”significantly better at detecting lies” than adults.

So if you suspect your kid is a pretty little liar, don’t rely on your instincts. As noted parenting expert Ronald Reagan once advised, trust but verify.