Lies and Punishment - What NOT to Do When Your Child Lies

Kids who are afraid of being punished are more likely to lie

Caught lying? Postive incentives will encourage her to tell the truth. Tetra Images-Jamie Grill/Getty Images

If you want your child to tell you the truth, steer clear of threatening her with punishment if she lies, says a new study. The instinct to react by punishing a child when he lies is understandable--most parents want their kids to be honest with them, and may reach for punishment to try to prevent a child from making a habit of lying. But according to new research, the threat of punishment may only lead to the opposite outcome of what parents are trying to do--it may make it more likely that a child will lie.

In a recent study by researchers at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, 372 children between the ages of 4 and 8 were evaluated to see what influences why they lie. "We wanted to see what the things are that improve the likelihood of dishonesty and honesty in kids," says Victoria Talwar, PhD, an associate professor at McGill University and the lead author of the study. To find out, researchers left each child alone in a room for one minute and asked them to not peek at a toy, which was left on a table behind them. A hidden camera captured what the kids did, and when the researchers returned to the room, they asked the kids whether or not they turned around and looked at the toy. About 2/3 of the kids lied about what they'd actually done. Older kids were more likely to be truthful but were also better at lying than younger kids.

An even more interesting finding was that kids were less likely to tell the truth when they were afraid of being punished for lying and more likely to be honest when they were told either that it would please the adult or that being truthful was the right thing to do and that they would feel good about themselves.

In other words, giving kids a positive incentive--either external ("I'll be pleased with you if you tell the truth") or internal ("It's the right thing to do and you'll feel good when you tell the truth") were much better motivators for being truthful than threats of punishment for lying.

Keeping Kids Honest: What Parents Can Do

So what can parents do to encourage honesty in kids?

Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Put lying in perspective. When kids lie, it's actually a sign that they are hitting a developmental milestone; it does not mean that you did something wrong as a parent. While we want our kids to tell the truth, the reality is that most kids lie--and it's not only natural but a marker of cognitive development, says Dr. Talwar.
  • Set the standards early. Talk to your child about why honesty is important. Younger kids tend to want to please their parents and other adults while older kids are more likely to be influenced by internal factors--a growing sense of right and wrong. With younger kids, explain that you'll be happy when they tell you the truth; with older kids, play on their desire to do the right thing and emphasize how much they'll feel good about themselves when they come clean about something they did, even if it doesn't please you. "It's important to talk about honesty and the benefits of being honest," says Dr. Talwar.
  • Remember that positive incentive. Talking about the bad things that can happen when they lie isn't enough, says Dr. Talwar. "Kids already know that." Instead, focus on the good--that you and he will both be happier and that the truth will build your trust and make your relationship even stronger.
  • Don't punish them when they tell you the truth. When they are honest, recognize and acknowledge it," says Dr. Talwar. Make it clear that you know and appreciate that they told you the truth. So, for instance, if your child breaks a vase and tells you what really happened, don't get angry. Praise her for telling you the truth and work together to come up with a way for her to make up for what she did, such as doing extra chores to earn money to buy a replacement.

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