Parenting is a complicated task in which the lines between what’s good and what’s bad are often blurred, especially when the values that we intend to instill in children hit the wall of reality. Such is the case of truth and lies.
We tell kids they shouldn’t lie and scold them when they do, but we often send inconsistent signals that end up confusing them, especially when our kids are too candid in social situations where we’d rather they weren’t, such as when they show they don’t like a gift or they don’t want to spend time with a person they don’t like. At other times, we ask them to be honest, but we are not.
Children who tell hard truths are viewed more negatively
Psychologists from Texas State University conducted a study in which they analyzed how adults perceive children who lie and those who tell the truth. Interestingly, despite the fact that telling the truth is generally considered a positive value in our society, adults actually prefer children who lie politely to those who tell the truth bluntly.
The team recruited 438 adults, 142 of whom were parents. They viewed eight videos showing different scenes in which a child told a blunt lie, such as that his brother’s musical performance was the best he had ever heard from him, despite being terrible.
In other scenes, that child was bluntly saying what he thought, stating that the brother’s performance was horrible, for example. There were also scenes where the boy told a white lie stating that the acting was pretty good, or went for a half-truth, indicating that the acting was not very good.
In some cases the child would lie to be nice and in others to protect someone from the unpleasant consequences of his behavior, such as lying to parents about the whereabouts of a sibling so he would not be punished.
After viewing each video, the adults had to evaluate the child taking into account characteristics such as trust, kindness and intelligence. They also had to indicate if he was believable and to what extent they would punish or reward him if they were his parent.
When children lied to protect their brother, for example, adults tended to judge them more negatively than those who were honest. Liars were also more likely to be punished than truth tellers.
However, children who told full truths were rated more negatively than those who told half-truths, although they were also considered more trustworthy.
When lying is wrong, but telling the truth is too
Lying is an intentional attempt to create a false belief in another person, and although many adults do it on a daily basis, whether for selfish reasons or to protect others, we teach children that lying is wrong. In fact, did you know that most adults tell a couple of lies every day? Instead, since many children have not yet assumed the social rules, they can become brutally honest, much to the dismay of many parents.
This study revealed that the motivation behind the lie is an important detail that tips the balance in the judgment of adults. That means we tend to judge kids who lie to be nice more positively than those who tell the truth bluntly.
In general, we apply an inconsistent approach to educating children about truth and lies, since what we value most are their motivations. If a child lies to be nice, he is viewed more positively and is more likely to be rewarded, but if he lies to protect a sibling, he is likely to be punished.
That educational inconsistency sends mixed messages to children about the need to tell the truth. And it is that, although our society tends to judge liars negatively, it establishes a distinction in the acceptability of lies taking into account a wide range of contextual factors, such as who is lying to whom and why.
To avoid punishment and reprimand for being overly honest, children are fast learners. It has been appreciated that with only 2 or 3 years they are already capable of lying, generally to protect or benefit themselves, although very soon they also begin to tell prosocial lies to avoid hurting the feelings of others.
How to teach children to tell the truth without hurting others?
Children are developing their value system, empathy and moral behavior in interactions with the others, especially with their parents. In fact, it has been appreciated that parents who provide their children with moral explanations and encourage them to reason about their behavior tend to raise children with higher altruistic tendencies.
Parents play a decisive role in shaping the way children lie or tell the truth, especially as their cognitive systems are developing. They could teach their children to rephrase hard truths or lie outright. Many times this process occurs unconsciously, through the reactions of the parents when the children begin to delve into the terrain of lies.
Parents can react to lies by viewing them as moral violations and focus on the harm they cause or praise children and encourage them to tell white lies to get on with the others. They could also discourage blunt truths with phrases like “you don’t have to say that” or “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t talk.”
Of course, we could think that teaching kids to tell white lies or half-truths would help them be more socially successful, but another study from Nanyang Technological University casts doubt on that idea.
These psychologists verified that the effects of white lies are seen in the long term. Adults who were lied to more as children also lied more as adults. In addition, they acknowledged having more difficulties in dealing with the social and psychological challenges in their lives. Specifically, they had more problems of adaptation, experienced more feelings of guilt and shame, or developed a more selfish and manipulative character.
“When parents tell children that ‘honesty is the best way,’ but they lie, that behavior can send mixed messages to their children. Eventually, parental dishonesty can erode trust and promote dishonesty in children,” these psychologists warned.
Therefore, parents must help their children to express what they feel and think, without harming others but remaining faithful to their truth. You could help your child rephrase potentially hurtful phrases so that he can express his point of view without hurting others.
Between “that gift is horrible, I don’t like it!” and a sparing “thank you for the gift” goes a long way. We must not teach children to lie, but to express themselves without harming others, being faithful to what they feel and taking into account the feelings of the other. Although perhaps, that is still one of the pending subjects of adults.
Brimbal, L. & Crossman, A. M. (2022) Inconvenient truth-tellers: Perceptions of children’s blunt honesty. Journal of Moral Education; 10.1080.
Serota, K. B. et. Al. (2022) Unpacking variation in lie prevalence: Prolific liars, bad lie days, or both? Communication Monographs; 89(3): 307-331.
Setoh, P. et. Al. (2019) Parenting by lying in childhood is associated with negative developmental outcomes in adulthood. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology; 189: 104680
Zahn-Waxler, C. et. Al. (1979) Child rearing and children’s prosocial initiations toward victims of distress. Child Development; 50(2): 319–330.