Like most other kids, I was afraid of lying to my parents. As a result, I lied to them often.
I don’t think I’m alone in saying that my parents embedded a sense of right and wrong in me. Included in that framework was an understanding of how important it is to always tell the truth. But that wasn’t just because telling the truth is the objectively right thing to do. It’s also because not telling the truth is wrong—and there would be consequences for it. But according to a new study by McGill researchers, punishment is actually an ineffective way to deal with lying kids. It might just make them lie more.
Interestingly, the "appeals" methods—stressing honesty as being the objectively right thing, or at least a way of pleasing the adult—proved to be much more effective in promoting honesty than focusing purely on punishment.
The experiment, led by child psychology professor Victoria Talwar, first placed a child in a room with his or her back to a sound-enabled toy, like a stuffed animal. A researcher, also in the room, twice asked the child to guess the toy making this sound. Next, a new toy was placed on the table, this time with a decidedly unrelated sound playing. The researcher explained that he or she would leave the room and return momentarily, at which point the game would resume. But while the researcher was out, the child was very clearly instructed not to peek at the toy. The children were given a specific set of consequences for peeking, ranging from the “punishment-no appeal”—saying that looking at the toy most certainly gets the child into trouble—to the “no punishment-internal appeal”—it’s important to tell the truth about peeking because that’s the right thing to do.
After the researchers finally left the room, a video camera monitored the children—there were 372 in all, from ages four to eight. When the researchers returned they asked the child if he or she looked at the toy, disobeying the instruction.
There must have been a Tickle Me Elmo involved at some point, because two-thirds of the kids broke the rule. Talwar found that two-thirds of the “peekers” lied about having done so, the majority of whom were promised consequences for lying. Interestingly, the "appeals" methods—stressing honesty as being the objectively right thing, or at least a way of pleasing the adult—proved to be much more effective in promoting honesty than focusing purely on punishment. The external appeals, stressing how happy a child's honesty would make the researcher, proved to be most effective. "Because children at a young age are most concerned about pleasing adults, external appeals may have the greatest potency in motivating children to tell the truth," the authors write.
So, don’t threaten to punish your kid for lying. Instead, focus on how happy you’ll be when they tell the truth.
“The bottom line is that punishment does not promote truth-telling,” Talwar says in a press release. “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.”
So yes, mom and dad, I lied sometimes. But that’s all your fault.