Want kids to stop lying? Don't punish them: Study

According to research out of McGill University, kids will resort to lying more frequently if there's a threat of discipline.
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Kids lie. That’s the truth.

They start around the age of two, and never stop. Whether it’s to hide any wrongdoing, or because they’ve fallen too deeply into a make-believe world, or just to test out the reaction of an authority figure, our job as parents is to teach them to stop. And the best way to get your kids to tell the truth is to not threaten them with punishment for lying.

According to a new study out of McGill University in Montreal, kids were more likely to tell the truth when they wanted to please an adult, or because they believed it was the right thing to do—and not because there was fear of discipline.

Researchers filmed 372 kids between the ages of four and eight for the study. They placed a toy behind each of the kids’ chairs, left the room and told them not to peek. Two-thirds of the kids looked behind them at the toy, and two-thirds of the ones who peeked lied about it later when asked.

The interesting part of the study is that researchers discovered what they said before they left the room left an impact on the behaviour of the kids. Some of the kids were told they’d be punished if they lied, some were prodded to admit they were lying to make an adult happy, while others were encouraged to tell the truth because it was the right thing to do. Another group of kids were not told anything at all from any of the adults presiding over the study.

Guess which group of kids lied the most, and stuck to their lies? That’s right—the kids who were threatened with punishment. It makes sense, doesn’t it? The ones who had the most to lose by getting caught were the ones who kept lying to cover up their actions. The youngest children in the study told the truth to make an adult happy, while the older kids responded better when they felt telling the truth was the right decision.

The bottom line is that punishment does not promote truth-telling,” says lead researcher Victoria Talwar. “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.”

So, next time you catch your little one in the middle of telling a fib, don’t threaten them with punishment. Instead, appeal to their better side, and you may just be surprised by the results.

Emma Waverman is a writer, blogger and mom to three kids. She has many opinions, some of them are fit to print. Read more of her articles here and follow her on Twitter @emmawaverman.

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