Punishing kids for lying just doesn’t work as deterrent

Posted on Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Punishment2Children more likely to tell the truth either to please an adult or because they believe it is the right thing to do

By Katherine Gombay

If you want your child to tell the truth, it’s best not to threaten to punish them if they lie. That’s what researchers discovered through a simple experiment involving 372 children between the ages of 4 and 8.

The researchers, led by Prof. Victoria Talwar of the Dept. of Educational and Counselling Psychology, 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 peek at the toy?”

What the researchers discovered was that:

  • Slightly more than 2/3 of the children peeked at the toy (67.5 per cent or 251 children out of the 372 who were involved in the experiment). For every 1-month increase in age, children became slightly less likely to peek.
  • When the children were asked whether or not they had peeked, again about 2/3 of them lied (167 children or 66.5 per cent) – and month-by-month as children aged, they both become more likely to tell lies and more adept at maintaining their lies

But what was more interesting to the researchers was that:

  • Children were less likely to tell the truth if they were afraid of being punished than if they were asked to tell the truth either because 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 behaviour 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,” says 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.”

Read the full article in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.


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Category: In Focus

One Response to Punishing kids for lying just doesn’t work as deterrent

  1. Ray Tomalty says:

    The reported experiment is in a situation where the child, when asked to tell the truth, is quite confident that the adult can’t possibly know the truth. I would be interested to see this experiment done in a context where the child thinks there is a chance her/his lie will be found out. A threat to punish for lying raises the child’s anxiety level about possibly being punished for having peaked. If the child is confident only she/he knows the truth, why take the chance of being punished by telling the truth? So it makes sense that a threat to punish would be associated with a low rate of success in getting the child to tell the truth. But what if the child was not confident that the adult couldn’t find out the truth about the forbidden act? Say, for instance, if the forbidden act was taking a cookie from a cookie jar – the adult might have counted the cookies. In this context, the child might reason that he/she is more likely to be punished because the adult might know the truth and therefore tell the truth about the forbidden act. The point is that the situation is more complex than the experiment let’s on. In real life, kids are calculating the chances of getting caught in their lie when deciding whether to lie or not.

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