Raise your hand if you’ve been there.  Your young child has just gotten into something that she knew was off-limits.  When met with an angry, red-faced you and the threat of punishment, she denies having done anything.  Now replay this scenario where she commits the forbidden act, but you approach her matter-of-factly and she knows that there is no threat of harsh punishment.  Does she still lie?

Many, if not most, parents out there wish for their children to be honest.  We know that honesty lies at the heart of healthy relationships, for it helps people to build and maintain trust in one another. Are there discipline styles, things that we are doing as parents, that hinder or promote honesty?  Talwar and Lee (2011) lend evidence to the affirmative. 

The researchers recently published a study in the journal Child Development where they conducted an experiment with 3- and 4-year-old preschool children in two West African schools serving children from comparable backgrounds.  One school was deemed to be punitive (e.g., allowed beating with a stick, slapping of the head, and pinching) and one was labeled non-punitive (i.e., utilized time-out, scolding, and, for more serious offenses, trips to the principal’s office).

Each of the 42 children per school underwent what the authors call a “temptation resistance paradigm” study wherein the adult examiner played an object guessing game with the child and then excused herself from the room, having “forgotten” something.  The child was recorded during the one-minute departure after being told not to peek at the object left behind by the examiner. 

Upon the return of the examiner, the child was asked if he/she peeked at the object.  Regardless of the response, the child was then asked what the object was.  In other words, the lying child either confirmed the lie by stating exactly what the object was or covered up the lie by saying it was something different or responding with something like, “I don’t know.” 

As you may guess, most of the children peeked regardless of which school they attended.  Who could resist?  The difference came in how they responded to the examiner’s questions.  While just over half (56%) of the children from the non-punitive school lied about peeking, almost all of the children (94%) from the punitive school lied regardless of age. 

Further, 70% of the children from the non-punitive school told what the object was (revealing their lie) and 31% of the children from the non-punitive school told the truth about the object.  In other words, the children from the punitive school were over five times more likely than the children from the non-punitive school to cover up their lie by telling another lie.

The authors concluded that the threat of severe punishment may not only encourage lying, but the lying may be more advanced as children learn ways of continuing the cover-up to avoid punishment.  Conversely, it may be argued that environments that are “non-punitive” may also allow children the safety that they need to be honest about their transgressions. 

The argument makes good sense.  You would probably be hard-pressed to find a child that comes clean with the knowledge that harsh punishment is sure to be delivered just as you would be more hard-pressed to find a child that is unwilling to tell the truth when he feels that it is safe to do so.  In the end, would you rather have your child do the right thing because he fears punishment or because it is the right thing to do?

Thanks for reading.  -Anita

Source: Talwar V, & Lee K (2011). A Punitive Environment Fosters Children’s Dishonesty: A Natural Experiment. Child development PMID: 22023095

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6 Responses to Liar, liar, pants on fire: How punishment can affect children’s honesty

  1. santy says:

    Thanks for great article, so much means for me when I learn to be a good mom.

  2. Emily Holz says:

    Great article and surprising results.

  3. Damon says:

    It’s not totally surprising that kids who get severe punishment all the time learn better lying skills. Lying is a skill after all, and practice makes perfect. I found the format of the study pretty clever, though. And I find it amazing that 70% from the non-punitive revealed what the object was! Were they unable to continue their lie, or uninterested to continue it? Eager to seem intelligent? I would love to see a picture of the look on their faces as they reveal the object.

  4. Michelle says:

    Hi there, I have a question for you that might not be totally related to this article but I really need an opinion/advise from someone credible. BTW I think the article is great. It definitely educated me.
    My child is in kindergarten and today he’s teacher talked to me that he has been a difficult kid in school. Apparently he’s been too chatty during work time and as his teacher put it he’s been “manipulative” to his classmates by telling them not to play to certain kids. Also complains of sticking his tongue out o his big buddy yesterday and when the teacher asked him something he just stared at his teacher which she was not impressed with. She is also concerned that my son is cautious on what to say to the other kids depending if he is being watched by the teacher or not. She says that he watches on the corner of his eye if she’s looking and if not he would talk to the other kids differently. I’m heart broken this morning to get “the talk” what should my biggest concerns be cause it sounds to me like these things are normal for kids to do. All I can think of is to reinforce on telling him not to do those things. Can you please tell me what my biggest concern should be and what should i do about it?
    tnx so much.

    • Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D. says:

      Hello Michelle,

      Thank you for writing. No parent likes to get “the talk” from their child’s teacher. We would, of course, like for things to be going well. Your son’s teacher is giving you some good information about how he is interacting with others at school. It is true that some of these behaviors are commonly found in children his age, but I encourage you to treat them as significant for your son’s sake.

      The pattern of behaviors that you describe, if given time and repetition, can develop into habits for how your son interacts with both peers and adults. While I agree that it should be made clear to your son that these ways of interacting are not acceptable and can lead to a whole lot of unintended consequences (e.g., people may not want to be around him), I think that the other critical piece is to lay out some things that you would like for him to do.

      You can start with saying something like, “I talked with your teacher today and she is worried about some of the things that have been happening at school. I understand that you might not be trying to hurt people’s feelings, but they do end up getting hurt when you tell the other kids not to play with them. It might seem like a fun game since you can get the other kids to do what you say, but they might be doing it just so you won’t do it to them, too. Now I know you and I think that you can be a really great friend without doing these things. I think that you can show them what a great friend you are by playing and hanging out and helping them when they need it.” You can also note a time when you saw him being a good friend and describe what you saw.

      “And when it comes to how you talk with grown-ups at school, it is very important to be respectful. It may seem funny at the time, but when you stick out your tongue at your big buddy or refuse to answer your teacher when she talks to you it can make people angry and get you in a whole lot of trouble. I know that you can use kind words when you talk with adults. I’ve seen you do it. I’d like for you to practice that at school.”

      Be cautious about turning this conversation into a lecture. It will be important for it to be a dialogue between the two of you where your son feels heard and valued. Remember, your goal is to help him understand the pitfalls of his behavior and to replace the negative with positive.

      One last piece, it is worth examining messages that he may be getting at home and this can be a very challenging thing to do. If he hears people being critical of others, even casually and in no way meaning harm (e.g., railing on somebody’s clothing on a TV show while hanging out with a friend), he may pick up the message that this is how you interact and connect with people.

  5. Devika P says:

    I think this a great post being a teacher myself have seen my students lying as they fear for punishment or have been scolded when they have been honest.
    Thanks for sharing this would definitely share with my parents and teachers.

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