Researchers: Why kids lie—and what makes them fess up

All kids lie. From the early preschool years through their teens, they fib about misdeeds even though they know lying is wrong. It’s a normal part of child development.

Now researchers have found a great, simple way we can encourage our kids to tell the truth.

First, it helps to realize that the ability to tell the truth starts VERY early.

Kids are capable of confessing (say, that they broke a vase or stole a cookie) as early as age 2, says developmental psychologist Craig Smith of the University of Michigan Center for Human Growth and Development.

It takes another year or two to learn the trickier option of lying in order to escape consequences, like having a parent yell at you or ground you for a week. Lying is a bit more of an advanced cognitive skill, since you have to understand that you’re giving someone a false picture of things. Kids start to lie as early as age 3 and do it more often as they grow—and get better at it, Smith says.

So you might think that older kids—the more skillful liars—would be the ones most likely to avoid admitting wrongdoing.

Not so, according to a new study by Smith and the University of Maryland’s Michael Rizzo.

It’s all about how it FEELS to lie or confess.

When kids do something wrong, they face a choice: Do I lie to Mom and Dad about it (or just avoid telling them) or do I admit it? “From a pretty early age, kids understand that lying is wrong and have the capacity to understand guilt,” Smith told me.

It’s human nature to do more of the things that we anticipate will make us feel good and do less of those that might make us feel bad. So the researchers studied the emotions behind whether kids choose to confess or to lie.

They showed illustrated stories about hypothetical misdeeds, like a child who stole candy and then either admitted it or blamed a dog for eating it, to two separate groups—4- to 5-year-olds and 7- to 9-year-olds—and asked the kids questions about the stories. They also separately interviewed the parents about their children’s real-world behavior at home.

The preschoolers associated more positive feelings with lying and more negative feelings with telling the truth, the researchers reported in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. That is, the younger kids focused on the more immediate benefit, lying and getting off the hook (a good feeling) over telling the truth and being punished (a yucky feeling).

It was the older kids who connected confessing to positive emotions in the stories they heard. “The older kids said their mothers would be pleased if they told the truth about situations like stealing, hitting, and pushing,” Smith said. “And we were excited to find that the kids who understood this—regardless of age—were also the ones who were more likely to be rated by their parents as being prone to confessing.”


Here’s why—and how to get more honesty at your house.

Two things explain the age difference:

1) Exposure. Older kids had more time to absorb messages about how their parents feel about lying and truth telling. “Regardless of age, if the child had the insight that the parent would be pleased if they confessed, they were more likely to do that at home,” Smith said.

2) Child development.  Older kids are better able to understand mixed emotions, other research on moral thinking has shown. They get that it might feel yucky to admit to Mama that you did wrong, but at the same time they understand that down the road, the moral principle of being truthful will make everybody feel better.

Preschoolers, in contrast, tend to live in the moment—so even though they know it’s wrong to lie, if they think you’ll be mad or disappointed, they’ll avoid that route. Studies on sharing show the same thing: Older kids know that if you have a box of crackers and split it evenly among friends, everyone will be happy. Younger kids also know this but get caught up in the moment—they can’t help hoarding the crackers in hand.

With a child of any age, Smith says, here’s the key to improving the odds that he or she will admit having done wrong:

Let ’em know how good it makes YOU feel when they fess up.

“Starting that message early in the preschool years, and continuing into the teen years, can motivate more of that behavior,” Smith told me. (He also speaks from personal experience: His kids are 12 and 14.)

The more honest kids in the study were the ones who anticipated that a parent would react well to the confession of a misdeed. A common way we do this, Smith says: by giving them the message that truthfulness makes us proud and happy—and that we won’t freak out on them.

When parents provide kids with positive messages about confessing from an early age—that regardless of what you’ve done, I’ll still listen and I’m always happy when you tell the truth—their kids seem more likely to engage in the behaviors parents want, says Smith.

Signal early and often that you welcome the truth.

The researchers didn’t ask the truthful kids’ parents exactly what they’d said about honesty. But Smith told me kids need messages like this:

  • “Of course I might not like everything you do, but I want you to know that even if you’ve done something I won’t like, I still want to know about it.”
  • “I might not be happy about what you’ve done, but I’ll always be happy that you told me about it.”
  • “If you have a problem, I’ll always listen. Even if you’re at fault, I’ll still help you work on it or solve it.”

Oh, one more really important thing…

Let your kid know ahead of time that you won’t yell or scream when they admit a misdeed, Smith says. And make good on that.

If you bite his or her head off, you reinforce that confessing is linked to bad feelings.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t issue consequences, but if you jump right into accusation or punishment before calm conversation, you might be inspiring future dishonesty more than encouraging the straight-and-narrow.

If you can keep cool and receptive, you keep the lines of communication open.

A parenting lesson that lasts and lasts:

Being approachable about smaller things when your child is younger sets the stage for trust in adolescence. That’s when the issue may no longer be relatively minor (a busted vase) or theoretical (a misdeed in a story) but may be something serious—like needing a ride when alcohol is involved.

From toddlerhood into teendom, we need to let ’em know that honesty is not only the best policy—but the all-around happiest one too.

Photos: David Goehring/Flickr; Tristan Schmurr/Flickr; Adrian Scottow/Flickr

See also:

By | 2017-08-30T15:18:08+00:00 January 25th, 2017|Grade-schooler, Preschooler, Teen, Toddler, Tween|

About the Author:

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Content chief Paula Spencer Scott is a mom of 4 and step-mom of 2—and the author or co-author of more than a dozen books about parenting, health, and eldercare, including Bright From the StartThe Happiest Toddler on the BlockLike Mother, Like Daughter; and Surviving Alzheimer’s.

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