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Why you should talk to, instead of punish, your children when they are dishonest

One lie, two lies, three lies. If your children are lying more after you have punished them for being dishonest, one problem may be that you need to talk to them instead.

A recent study (paywall), published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, revealed that when parents threaten punishment for lying, it will not get their children to tell the truth but it will make them lie more.

The study included 372 children between the ages of 4 and 8 who were left alone in a room with a hidden camera, sitting on a chair.

According to Baby Center's report on study, a woman stood behind the chair and played a toy recording and asked the child to guess, without peeking, what type of toy was making the noise. Then the woman left the room, leaving the toy in the room, and told the child to not peek at the toy.

In the study, each child was assigned to have the woman speak to him about the consequences of disobeying her instructions. Some of the children were told that it did not matter if they lied and others were told that if they peeked they would be in trouble.

A subset of children were also told the moral reasons for telling the truth.

Baby Center reported that the children were told, “If you tell the truth, I will be really pleased with you. I will be happy” or “It is really important to tell the truth because telling the truth is the right thing to do when someone has done something wrong.”

When researchers reviewed the camera recordings, they found that around 68 percent of the children in the experiment peeked at the toy and about 67 percent of the children who peeked lied about it, reported Counsel Heal. The findings also indicated that older children, compared to younger children, were less likely to peek, but more likely to tell lies and maintain the lies.

At the end of the study, after each child was spoken to about lying, the children were asked for a final answer about their actions.

According to Baby Center, 87 percent of the children lied about peeking if they were not told the ethical reasoning for being honest. When the children understood the moral reasoning not to lie, the rate of lying decreased.

“Children often lie to conceal transgressions,” said Victoria Talwar, study researcher and McGill University professor, to Time Inc.

“Having done something wrong or broken a rule, they (the children) may choose to lie to try to conceal it. After all, they know they may get in trouble for the transgression.” she said. “Thus, punishment doesn’t have much of an effect. It doesn’t deter them from using the strategy of lying to try to get out of trouble.”

In a Science Daily news release, the researchers explained that children were less inclined to tell the truth if they were scared of being punished by the adult than if they were asked to tell the truth to make the adult happy or if it was the proper response that made the child feel happy.

The younger children would typically tell the truth to please the adults, while the older children would usually tell the truth because they understood truth standards and why it was incorrect to lie, the release also described.

Talwar told Science Daily, that as the study demonstrates punishment does not promote honesty.

“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,” she said.

Talwar and other researchers from the study believe their findings may help parents and educators to more effectively encourage children, who have a tendency to lie, to understand why lying is a bad choice and why telling the truth is the right choice.

Email: kclark@deseretnews.com Twitter: @clark_kelsey3