Many parents make it clear that honesty is good while lying is bad, yet an adult’s responses to their child’s lies are not always consistent.
New experiments underscore this hypocrisy by showing that parents can be more critical of overtly honest and harshly expressed truth-tellers than polite and subtle liars.
The authors believe that children can feel the gap. Most children don’t explicitly learn to lie, but their parents’ reactions might teach them that twisting the truth is less risky than the alternative.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. VVirtually everyone learns to twist the truth to preserve other people’s feelings, for example. Lying is a milestone in a child’s emotional and social development, indicating a theory of mind or the ability to understand that other people have different thoughts, wants, or needs.
When a lie is done for selfish reasons, experiences suggest that it is often judged harshly by parents.
The New Experiments are the first to explore the feedback children receive from their parents when they tell a blunt truth (as in “I think your hat is ugly”), as opposed to a more subtle, polite lie (as in “I think the color of your hat is pretty”).
The study was conducted among 142 parents, who watched a series of eight videos depicting a child actor in various scenarios. While observing the images, participants were asked to imagine that the child was their own and to think about how they might react to his behavior.
In one filmed script, for example, a parent asked a child to reveal the location of a sibling, who was also having issues with their parents.
In the candid, truth-telling video, the child replied, “She’s on the porch.” The Brutal Liar, meanwhile, replied, “She went to the library.”
The subtle liar said, “I think maybe she went to bed or something.” And the subtle truth-teller replied, “I think she might be out.”
In another scenario filmed, the child lied not to protect a sibling but to be polite.
After each video, the parents rated the child on characteristics such as reliability, kindness, good behavior, competence, sympathy, friendliness, intelligence, honesty and warmth. They also gave points for how good of a person they thought the child was.
In general, lying was viewed more negatively by adult participants than honesty, but there were exceptions.
When lying to be polite, a child was viewed more positively by adults, and was more likely to be rewarded than even the most polite truth tellers.
However, when a child lied to protect a brother or sister, he was judged more harshly than true “tellers”.
This form of honesty does not really endear a parent to a child. Sympathy ratings tend to drop when a child talks about their sibling, adding weight to the old adage that “nobody likes a tattletale.”
At the same time, however, denunciations in the experiments were considered more reliable by adults.
“Thus, although cultural mores dictate that lying is negative behavior, a much more nuanced message is likely conveyed to children who engage in prosocial lying,” the authors write.
“While blunt honesty may engender aversion, it may also engender the perception that the individual can be trusted – that whoever offers such a blunt assessment must be honest.”
Future research will need to examine the child’s perspective in similar scenarios to see if the authors are correct in assuming how children interpret and learn from their parents’ reactions.
The study was published in the Moral Education Journal.