Lying to your child: New study shows negative effects

A new study out of MIT warns parents of the negative effects of lying to your child.
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After the chaos of our traditional Easter morning egg hunt subsided this past April, my kids looked at their candy and toy haul with a somewhat bored look on their faces. I knew what question was coming.

“What can we do now that we found all the candy?” asked my seven-year-old son, Isaac.

Trying to keep my cool (because I simply couldn’t understand how they could be bored), a ridiculous thought popped into my head.

“Another special bunny has been here! It’s the Laundry Bunny, and if you look in the basement, you’ll see that he’s washed all your clothes! He works with the Easter Bunny, and if you put away your clean clothes, more Easter candy appears!”

My daughter immediately jumped up, declaring her love for the Laundry Bunny, and ran to the basement to find her clean clothes. On the other hand, my son looked at me like I was crazy.

“There’s no such thing as a Laundry Bunny. How’d he get into the house? And rabbits can’t press buttons. You’re lying,” he said accusingly.

Read more: Is it OK to lie to your kids?>

Now, of course I was lying! The idea of a Laundry Bunny is just as ludicrous as an Easter Bunny (and trust me, if there was a Laundry Bunny I’d kidnap him and keep him in my house), but this particular lie was one my son could see right through—as opposed to the other fibs and fairy tales we tell our kids, like Santa and the Tooth Fairy. That said, I don’t think any serious harm is done—which goes against new research out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It suggests that kids learn to mistrust adults who lie to them—especially when kids are only told part of a story.

Led by Laura Schulz, a primary investigator in the Early Childhood Cognition Lab in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, researchers found that not only can children make the distinction between being told the truth and only part of the truth, but they can also compensate for missing information by exploring more on their own. Conducting a series of experiments with 42 six- and seven-year-old children, toys with multiple functions were shown. In some experiments all the functions of a toy were demonstrated to the children, in other experiments, only one of the functions of the toy were shown.

“Children who had previously seen a demonstration they knew to be incomplete explored the toy much more thoroughly than children who had seen a complete demonstration, suggesting that they did not trust the teacher to be fully informative,” says MIT’s Anne Trafton.

“This shows that children are not just sensitive to who’s right or wrong. Children can also evaluate others based on who’s providing information that is enough or not enough for accurate inference,” says Hyowon Gweon, an MIT post-doc.

Given that the study group was so small, it’s hard to take away a lot from the study, especially when put in the context of parents using lies or partial truths to protect their children during stressful times, something our family experienced first hand last year when my husband was laid off. While we didn’t hide the fact that my husband was unemployed, we did avoid answering some of their very pointed questions about money. Could that be considered lying? Possibly, but we felt strongly about not sharing the truth about our financial stresses with our young children. And, to be honest, I don’t see how that decision will have a negative impact on how much—or little—our kids trust us.

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband, while staying home to raise their two young children. Read more Run-at-home mom posts or follow her @JenPinarski.

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