Many parents make it clear that honesty is good and lying is bad, and yet an adult’s responses to their child’s lies are not always consistent.
New experiments highlight this hypocrisy by showing that parents may be more critical of bluntly honest, tough-talking truth-tellers than gentle, subtle liars.
The authors believe that children can perceive incongruity. Most children are not explicitly taught to lie, but their parents’ reactions may teach them that bending the truth is less dangerous than the alternative.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Vvirtually everyone learns to twist the truth to preserve another person’s feelings, for example. Lying is an important step 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 made for self-serving reasons, experiments show that it is often judged harshly by parents.
The new experiments are the first to investigate what 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 that the color of your hat is nice”).
The study was conducted among 142 parents, who watched a series of eight videos depicting a child actor in various scenarios. While watching the video, participants were asked to imagine that the child was theirs and to think about how they might react to their behavior.
In one filmed scenario, for example, a parent asked a child to reveal the location of a sibling, one who also had trouble with the parents.
In the video that tells the raw truth, the child replied: “It’s under the porch.” The raw liar, meanwhile, replied, “Go to the library.”
The subtle liar said, “I think she might have gone to sleep or something.” And the subtle truth replied, “I think he may be out.”
In another filmed scenario, the child lied not to protect a sibling but to be kind.
After each video, parents rated the child on traits such as trustworthiness, politeness, good behavior, competence, likeability, friendliness, intelligence, honesty, and warmth. They also rated how good a person they thought the child was.
In general, lying was viewed more negatively by adult participants than honesty, but there were exceptions.
When they lied to be polite, adults viewed a child more positively and were more likely to be rewarded even by the kindest truth-tellers.
However, when a child lied to protect a sibling, they are judged more harshly than true “playboys.”
This form of honesty doesn’t exactly attract a parent to a child. Likeability ratings tend to drop when a kid tells his sibling, adding weight to the old adage that “nobody likes a fairy tale.”
At the same time, however, stories in experiments were considered more reliable than adults.
“Thus, although cultural mores dictate that lying is a negative behavior, a much more subtle message is likely to be conveyed to children who engage in prosocial lying,” the authors write.
“While brutal honesty can be disliked, it can also create the perception that the person can be trusted – that someone offering 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 hypothesizing how children interpret and learn from their parents’ reactions.
The study was published in Journal of Moral Education.