While kids are told not to lie, they also get mixed messages about being honest in different situations.
In a new study, researchers looked at how adults reacted to kids’ levels of honesty in various situations, from telling bold truths to telling subtle lies.
Among the key findings: Kids were judged more harshly when they told blunt truths rather than lying.
“This research tends to show there exists a complicated relationship with the truth that children must navigate to learn what is socially acceptable,” said lead author Dr. Laure Brimbal. She is an assistant professor of criminal justice and criminology at Texas State University in San Marcos.
“Most parents will have been embarrassed or upset by their children’s brutal honesty at some point,” Brimbal said. “Learning to tell lies is a normal part of children’s social development.”
For the study, 267 adults were shown videos of children telling the truth or lying in various social situations. The 24 kids were 6 to 15 years of age.
The findings were published Oct. 12 in the Journal of Moral Education.
An example of blunt truths was “I don’t want this present – it’s ugly!” Other examples included a child lying about where their sister, who was in trouble with their parents, was hiding, as well as another child lying to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.
The adults watched videos in which kids acted out four variations of “blunt” or “subtle” lies or truths.
In the scenario where the sister was hiding, the blunt lie was “she went to the library to do homework.” The subtle truth was “I think she might be outside.” The subtle lie was “I think she might have gone to bed or something.” The blunt truth was “she’s under the porch.”
After they watched the videos, adults were asked their impression of the child’s character. They were asked to rate their trustworthiness, kindness, reliability, competence, likeability, intelligence and honesty. Imagining they were the child’s parent, participants were also asked to rate how likely they would be to punish or reward the child for their lies or truths.
The study found that adults judged the kids who told blunt truths more harshly than those who lied or told vague truths, but only when they told lies to be polite. Telling blunt truths or lies meant to protect others had less influence on adults’ view of the child.
Overall, the adults would most often reward children for telling “subtle truths.” An example of this was saying “I think she might be outside” about the hiding sister.
“Children are taught that lying is wrong, nevertheless they develop the ability to tell lies from an early age,” Brimbal said, adding that researchers know little about the mechanisms that underlie development of the critical social skill of “prosocial lying.”
The results show that kids are learning about honesty in a complicated environment, Brimbal said in a journal news release.
“It appears to be an important social skill to lie to fit in with other’s expectations, but this is in despite of potential conflicting messages from their adult caregivers that it is wrong to lie … whilst in addition, it is sometimes perceived as unkind to be honest,” she added.
The results suggest that the way adults view lies that are told to fit in and be seen in a positive light, and which behaviors adults reward or punish shape how children learn to behave in a way acceptable to society.
“Given the pervasive impact of socialization influences on children’s behavior, as well as the mixed messages children receive about lie-telling, it is little wonder that they engage in nuanced lie-telling from an early age,” Brimbal explained.
She said the study shows the degree to which adults are inconsistent in their evaluations and self-reported behavioral responses.
It’s not clear whether the adults’ in-person behavior would be the same, but Brimbal said it is likely that contradictory explicit and implicit messages about honesty and dishonesty shape kids’ early behavior.
Next steps for research will be to investigate how these early socialization processes affect truth- and lie-telling as the children grow into adults, the study authors noted.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has more on children and honesty.