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Do harsh punishments teach kids to lie?

Busted! Does punishment teach kids to lie?

Research suggests a surprising relationship between kids’ lying and punishment: a punitive disciplinary style may teach kids to be less honest.



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psychologists say harsh punishments don’t deter bad behavior, but they do make it more likely that your kids will lie to you. In fact, research suggests that the fear of punishment turns kids into better liars.

“One of the most common reasons children lie is to escape punishment. And we do know that children who are subject to harsh punishments are more likely to lie to avoid that punishment. It certainly does not deter the behavior or make children want to fess up to a misdeed,” says Dr. Esther Goldberg, a registered clinical psychologist in London, Ontario.

If you want to encourage your child to tell you the truth and establish a pattern of honest communication, research suggests that a firm but warm parenting style that encourages honesty without threatening punishment is your best bet.

Did you peek?

Victoria Talwar, associate professor in the Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology at McGill University in Montreal and a leading researcher on kids and lying, tested kids’ lying and truth-telling under a variety of conditions. Kids ranging in age from 4 to 8 were told not to peek at a toy and then were left alone in a room. Unbeknownst to the kids, researchers were watching and would know whether or not they peeked. Two thirds of the kids peeked at the toy.

Before being asked whether or not they had peeked, all of the kids were asked to tell the truth. One group of kids was told that they’d be punished if they had peeked. Another group was assured that they would not get in trouble if they had peeked. Unsurprisingly, the kids in the first group, who expected to be punished if they had peeked, were more likely to lie about having peeked.

When punishments are harsh, lying is adaptive

In another study, researchers played this “peeking game” with 3- and 4-year-old West African children from two different schools — one with a harsh, punitive disciplinary style and one with a non-punitive disciplinary style. Peekers from the punitive school were significantly more likely to lie about having peeked than peekers from the non-punitive school. In addition to being more likely to lie, the kids from the punitive school were more skilled at maintaining their lie than the non-punitive school kids when asked follow-up questions. Talwar says this suggests that a punitive environment fosters increased dishonesty and children’s ability to lie to hide their transgressions. “It seems that in a harshly punitive environment, lying may have an adaptive effect by protecting you from getting in trouble.”

Of course, Talwar clarifies, this doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t discipline their kids! “Of course some discipline is necessary, I’m talking about harsh corporal punishment,” she says. “This was not a just environment. The kids were getting in trouble a lot and seeing other kids get in trouble for things like forgetting their pencil. In that environment, lying seemed to be a skill kids learned earlier and got better at earlier.”

The bottom line, she says, is that punishment does not promote truth-telling.

Honesty rules

One thing parents can do to discipline kids without creating conditions that encourage lying is to simply stay calm when dealing with the infraction. “The more explosive the parent gets, the more frightened the child gets, and the more likely they are to lie,” says Stavinoha.

In the context of a safe, nurturing relationship, children are more likely to be honest, says Dr. Goldberg, in part out of reluctance to disappoint their parents. “Parental disappointment holds a lot of weight, she says. “Disappointing a parent can feel very punishing.”

On being warm and firm

So imagine that your child has spilled soda on your laptop even though he knows he’s not allowed to eat or drink while using it, and now it’s not working. Or that she stayed up all night online and was so tired she failed her history test the next morning.

Now imagine saying you’re unhappy about the result of your child’s actions but you appreciate them being honest and taking responsibility for what they did. And then together discussing the repercussions (using their allowance to have the laptop repaired or replaced, for example, or instituting a no-devices-in-the-bedroom-after-a-certain-time-of-night rule). In this scenario, the unacceptable behavior is addressed and your child gets the message that being honest with you is a positive experience — even when the truth is something they know you’re not going to like.


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