Instead of Punishing Lies, Encourage Honesty

If we punish lies, we might actually end up reinforcing the message that getting caught lying is damaging only in terms of the potential personal cost. Kids will learn the lesson “don’t lie because you will get in trouble” rather than “don’t lie because it’s hurtful”. Punishment can even lead to more skilled liars as kids go through trial and error practicing their lying. Rather than punish kids for lying, it may be better to think about why they’re lying in the first place and start a conversation about honesty.

If children seem to suddenly lie much more than usual, it may be a sign that they feel unstable. Changes in the dynamics of their friendships, classroom, or home could make them feel vulnerable. To regain a sense of control and jostle for social standing, they may use lying as a tool. If they find lying to be an effective tool, then they’ll be more likely to use it in the future to manage social situations.

Lying is usually just a sign of normal development. It may even be a sign of more advanced cognitive functioning. Lying is an inherently complex skill, as is detecting a lie.

In a recent study from a team of McGill University researchers, they wanted to find out if two and a half year olds who lied were also better able to distinguish between a lie and the truth. Then they tested kids’ executive functioning. Executive functioning includes a range of key skills like planning, working memory, and self-control.

The children in the study participated in a task that was designed to give them opportunities to lie. First the researcher and child played a game in which the child turned around and had to guess what toy the researcher had placed under a blanket by listening to the sound it made. After several rounds, the researcher told the child they needed to leave the room for a minute. They asked the child not to peek at the next toy while they were gone. With hidden cameras, the researchers knew which kids peeked. When they came back, they asked the kid if they had peeked or not. Nearly 90% of the children peeked at the toy and approximately 30% of those kids said that they hadn’t. Lie-tellers tended to have stronger executive functioning skills and were also better at being able to distinguish between lies and the truth.

Considering that kids as young as two and a half years old begin to lie, that begs the question: how can we talk to kids about honesty? Kids are sensitive to how we frame honesty and explain how lying affects those around us. Are we framing honesty as a means of avoiding getting into trouble? Or are we encouraging honesty as a means of respecting and appreciating the people around us?

In another study from McGill, the researchers tested children after telling them either The Boy Who Cried Wolf or George Washington and the Cherry Tree. Telling the children The Boy Who Cried Wolf didn’t reduce the children’s lying behavior. However, after hearing the story about Washington, the children were quite a bit less likely to lie. In the story, Washington admits to cutting down his father’s cherry tree. His father says, “George, I’m glad that you cut down that cherry tree after all. Hearing you tell the truth is better than if I had a thousand cherry trees.” Hearing this story reduced children’s lying by about 75% for boys and by 50% for girls.

This could have been because of the underlying messages of each story. One focuses on the consequences of lying, whereas the other emphasizes the rewards of being honest.

Maybe these orchestrated lies in a research setting don’t quite capture how children lie in real life. But it may be worth thinking twice about how to encourage honesty - and how to avoid encouraging lying without realizing it.

Even toddlers lie. The way adults frame honesty can shape how children view the consequences of lying.

Lee, K., Talwar, V., McCarthy, A., Ross, I., Evans, A., & Arruda, C. (2014). Can classic moral stories promote honesty in children? Psychological Science, 25(8), 1-7.

Williams, S., Leduc, K., Crossman, A., & Talwar, V. (2017). Young deceivers: Executive functioning and antisocial lie‐telling in preschool aged children. Infant and Child Development, 26 (1).