For many parents lying to their young children is much easier than forcing compliance or spending time on a lengthy explanation that isn't likely to be understood anyway. It's an understandable impulse, but even seemingly innocuous lies could be teaching children the wrong sorts of lessons.
A new study published in the journal Developmental Science shows that children who are lied to are more likely to lie themselves.
The study put children in a test situation with a researcher who either lied to the child and quickly recanted or did not lie to the child to get them into a test room. Once in the room the children were played audio clips from popular children's character toys that were held out of the children's view and asked which character the sounds represented.
Most of the toys, such as Elmo or Winnie the Pooh were deliberately easy to pick out. One sound, however was a short clip from Beethoven's "Fur Elise." When that sound played the researcher left the room on an errand but told the child not to peek at the toy.
The study found that around 60% of the children who had not been initially lied to peeked at the toy anyway. Of those peeking children around 60% of them then lied to the researcher about peeking.
The percentages rose significantly for the children who the researchers had lied to. Of those children, almost 80% peeked at the toy and nearly 90% of those who peeked lied about it.
"As far as we know," said Leslie Carver, a co-author of the study and an associate professor of psychology and human development at the University of California, San Diego. "This is the first experiment confirming what we might have suspected: Lying by an adult affects a child's honesty."
Exactly what the experiment means isn't clear. One explanation fielded by the study's authors is that the children were simply copying the behavior of the researcher or that the children were taking moral ques from the adult. Another idea is that the children did not feel particularly compelled to be entirely honest with someone who had proven themselves to be a liar.
"All sorts of grown-ups may have to re-examine what they say to kids," said Carver. "Even a 'little white lie' might have consequences."
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