Everyone lies, even if only white lies intended to keep from offending someone with an unpleasant truth.
And every parent lies to his children, at least once in a while. Maybe it’s a lie about the Easter Bunny being real. Maybe it’s a lie about the cat you put to sleep “going to live on a farm.” Maybe it’s a lie about the police coming if a child doesn’t eat his broccoli.
A new study points out that the result of lying to children might be more than just getting him to clean his plate. The results might be that kids are more likely to lie – and cheat and then lie about cheating – if they’ve been recently lied to themselves.
Nearly 200 children ages 5 to 7 participated in an experiment in which half of them were lied to just for a moment by an adult. In the study, children were asked to identify sounds created by a hidden source. Three of the sounds were easy to figure out (things like the laugh of a Tickle Me Elmo toy, for example). But one sound was difficult: a recording of the Beethoven tune played by Schroeder in the Peanuts television specials. Half of the children were just asked to play the game. The other half were first told there was “a huge bowl of candy” in the next room – implying they could win candy – but then were immediately told the candy story wasn’t true.
As part of the experiment, children in both groups played the game with the researcher observing until the researcher announced she “had to leave the room” to “take a phone call” for just before the difficult Beethoven sound clip was played. When the researcher returned, a minute-and-a-half later, she asked the child if he had peeked to see what had made that sound.
Children who had been lied to – just for a moment – about the candy were much more likely to peek than children who weren’t lied to (all the children were videotaped so researchers knew) and were much more likely to lie about peeking. Sixty percent of the children who hadn’t heard the lie peeked at the source of the sound and 60 percent of these un-lied-to peeking children then lied about peeking. But of the children who heard the lie about the candy, 80 percent peeked and of these 90 percent lied about peeking.
Why being lied to inclines a child to lie and cheat is a question to be decided in further research. This study’s researchers say the reason might be that children who are lied to are just imitating what the adult did. Or it might be that children who are lied to believe the adult who lied expects them to lie also or that the adult isn’t very concerned about truth and integrity.
It’s also not known if a lie that “sticks” matters more than a lie that is quickly corrected, as the lie was in this study. It’s not known if a pattern of being lied to has a cumulative effect even greater than a single instance of being lied to. Given the fact that a single lie, quickly recanted, can affect children’s behavior so dramatically should make us sit up and take notice. Lying to kids isn’t a good idea!
No one is suggesting that you should discourage the Easter Bunny or be painfully truthful with your child when shading of the truth is more kind. But instead of lying, try some alternative ways of interacting with your child:
- Avoid making threats and especially avoid making threats you have no intention of following through on.
- Avoid making promises and especially avoid making promises you have no intention of keeping. Empty threats and empty promises have the same effect on your credibility: they erode it.
- Instead, take the time to guide children sensibly. Lying is a shortcut but it will eventually backfire. Take the time now to discuss why you expect your child to do as you’re asking.
- When you realize you’ve lied to your child or promised something that you’re not going to deliver, apologize. Our lapses in truthfulness are forgivable but we have to ask a child for forgiveness. Your apology helps to restore your credibility and to emphasize the importance you place on being honest with each other.
Lying isn’t a trivial act. As this study demonstrates, lying to kids has an immediate negative effect on children’s own honesty. We grownups must be more careful to not lead our children astray.
© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.