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

By Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D.

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 Childrens Dishonesty: A Natural Experiment. Child development PMID: 22023095