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New findings published today show that children are telling the raw truth, such as: “I don’t want that present – it’s ugly!” adults judge more harshly than those who expose the truth to be polite or to protect others.


Published in Art Journal of moral educationresearch demonstrates the mixed messages adults give children about lying rather than speaking the truth in different contexts.

“This research generally shows that there is a complex relationship with truth that children must navigate in order to learn what is socially acceptable,” explains lead author Dr. Laure Brimball of Texas State University’s School of Criminal Justice and Criminology.

“Most parents will at some point be embarrassed or upset by their children’s brutal honesty. Learning to lie is a normal part of childhood social development.”

She adds that “children are taught that lying is wrong, yet they develop the ability to tell lies from an early age. To date, we know little about the mechanisms and processes that underlie the development and formation of the critical social skill of prosocial lying.” . , despite adults’ conflicting reports about the acceptability of lying as opposed to telling the truth.”

“Our results show that children learn honesty in a rather challenging environment. Lying to meet the expectations of others appears to be an important social skill, but this is despite potentially conflicting messages from their adult caregivers that it is wrong to lie… in while, moreover, it is sometimes perceived as unkind to be honest.’

As a result, 267 adults from the northeastern United States were shown videotapes of children between the ages of 6 and 15 telling the truth or lying in a variety of social situations.

In some cases, 24 different children lied to protect others. For example, a child lied about where his sister was hiding, who was having problems with her parents. In other cases, children lied out of politeness, such as telling “white lies” to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.

The children acted out four options for a “dull” or “subtle” lie or truth. For example, in the scenario of hiding the sister, the “blatant lie” was “she went to the library to do her homework”; the subtle truth was that “I think she might be out”; the subtle lie was, “I think she might have gone to bed or something”; and the rough truth was “She’s under the porch.”

After watching each clip, adults rated their impression of the child’s character, including trustworthiness, kindness, reliability, competence, likability, intelligence, and honesty. Imagining that they were the child’s parents, participants also rated how likely they were to punish or reward the child for lying or telling the truth.

The findings showed that adults judged truth tellers more harshly than those who lied or told vague truths, but only when they lied to be polite. When children lied to protect others, blunt truths and lies had less effect on how adults viewed the child.

Overall, the study participants said they would reward children the most for telling “subtle truths” — like, “I think she might be outside” in the hiding sister’s example.

The results of the study paint a complex picture of how we adults perceive the lies children tell, trying to fit in and view them in a positive light. By looking at what behavior adults will reward or punish in children, the results also show how these perceptions shape the process of teaching children socially acceptable behavior – so-called “socialization”.

Dr. Brimball adds that “given the pervasive influence of socialization on children’s behavior, and the mixed messages children receive about lying, it is not surprising that they tell nuanced lies from an early age.”

“Our research shows the extent to which adults are inconsistent in their evaluations and behavioral responses to children of different ages who lie or tell the truth. Questions remain as to whether their personal behavior will follow suit, but it is likely that these conflicting explicit and implicit messages about honesty and dishonesty act as socializing influences and shape children’s early behavior.’

Limitations of this study include the sample size and narrow location of participants, however there was a 50/50 split of women and men and a mixed range of ethnicities represented. Adults were also asked to rate how gullible the children were to account for whether the quality of their acting skills might have skewed the results.

The next steps in research will be to examine how these early socialization processes affect development childrentruth and lies over time as they grow into adults.


Truth about lies? Children’s perception becomes more nuanced with age


Additional information:
Laure Brimball et al., Inconvenient Truthful People: Perceptions of Children’s Open Honesty, Journal of moral education (2022). DOI: 10.1080/03057240.2022.2109606

Citation: Children who tell truths, not lies, are judged more harshly by adults (2022, October 12) Retrieved October 12, 2022, from https://phys.org/news/2022-10-children-blunt-truths- opposed -lies.html

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