The first time your kids lie to you is always a surprise. It usually involves them spilling a cup of milk and then saying they did not just spill that cup of milk. They’re always terrible liars in the beginning. This new development leaves parents wondering what they can do to make sure they raise their children to tell them the truth, even when it means they might get in trouble.
A new study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology looked at the connection between a child’s tendency to confess about bad behavior and what they think their parent’s response to that confession will be.
Children ages 4 to 9 were told stories in which the main character did something wrong and then either confessed or hid their misdeed. What researchers found was that the 4- and 5-year-olds were more likely to associate good feelings with lying because it allowed them to do something they weren’t supposed to and get away with it, and they associated bad feelings with confessing because they assumed that their parents would react negatively. Amazingly, the 7- to 9-year-olds felt exactly the opposite: They felt bad about lying and expected a positive response from their parents if they confessed what they had done.
The researchers’ takeaway from the study was that the key to encouraging honesty in children is for them to believe that being honest is good for them and will result in a positive reaction from their parents. This, of course, doesn’t mean that if your kid confesses to breaking a window that you should give them a standing ovation, but perhaps the key is to tell them how proud you are that they told the truth in addition to meting out a punishment. As NY Magazine put it in an article about the study, “It’s not a question of not getting mad… it’s more an issue of prefacing with an ‘I’m glad you told me’ before launching into the harder stuff.”