New research discovers that if you want your child to tell the truth, it’s best not to threaten to punish them if they lie.
In the study, Canadian researchers from McGill University in Montreal performed a simple experiment involving 372 children between the ages of four and eight.
The researchers left each child alone in a room for one minute with a toy behind them on a table, having told the child not to peek during their absence. While they were out of the room, a hidden video camera filmed what went on.
When the researchers returned, they asked the child, a simple question: “When I was gone, did you turn around and peak at the toy?”
Victoria Talwar, Ph.D., of McGill’s Dept. of Educational and Counselling Psychology and her team of researchers discovered that slightly more than two-thirds of the children peeked at the toy (67.5 percent or 251 children out of the 372 who were involved in the experiment).
For every one-month increase in age, children became slightly less likely to peek.
When the children were asked whether or not they had peeked, again about two-thirds of them lied (167 children or 66.5 percent) — and month-by-month as children aged, they both become more likely to tell lies and more adept at maintaining their lies.
Of interest to the researchers was the discovery that children were less likely to tell the truth if they were afraid of being punished. They were more likely to tell the truth when they believed it would please the adult, or because it was the right thing to do and would make the child feel good.
The researchers expected and found that while younger children were more focused on telling the truth to please the adults, the older children had better internalized standards of behavior which made them tell the truth because it was the right thing to do.
“The bottom line is that punishment does not promote truth-telling,” said Talwar, the lead researcher on the study.
“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. This is useful information for all parents of young children and for the professionals like teachers who work with them and want to encourage young children to be honest.”