Does Your Kid Lie? Don't Punish Him, Researchers Say

I remember the last time my son lied to me.  Actually, it was last night.  He went in to take a shower and ran the water, then came out.  This morning I noticed that the tab that releases the shower spray wasn't up, the way it always is when he showers (and then splashes down all over me when I get in our shower tub to take mine).

"Did you take a shower?" I demanded.

"Ye-e-e-e-s," he said in that nasty teenage voice, when they're angry you're asking (and afraid you've caught them). 

Of course I can't prove it but he hates taking a shower (what is it with boys?) and would do just about anything to get out of it.

So what did I do?  The usual.  Nothing.  I took him at his word, even though I knew he most likely was not telling the truth.

Now a new study is saying that maybe I did the right thing, after all.  Researchers have found that punishing kids for lying just doesn't work.

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, according to 

Researchers 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?”

Slightly more than 2/3 of the children peeked at the toy. For every one-month increase in age, children became slightly less likely to peek. Do they get better at delayed gratification?

But that's another study.

When the children were asked whether or not they had peeked, again about 2/3 of them lied and month-by-month as children aged, they both become more likely to tell lies and -- here's the scary part -- more adept at maintaining their lies.

Now here's where it gets really interesting.  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 behavior 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 Victoria Talwar, the lead researcher on the study, at “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. . .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 I'm standing outside the bathroom door and waiting to hear the thump when he gets in the tub.  


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