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Want your kid to be honest? Don’t threaten him with punishment if he lies, says a new study conducted at McGill University in Canada. In fact, kids who are afraid of being sent to their room or getting grounded will lie even more.
Researchers rounded up 372 kids between the ages of four and eight and left each one alone in a room with a toy placed behind him. After instructing the kids to not look at the toy, the researchers left the room while a hidden camera recorded their actions. When the study authors returned, they asked the children, “When I was gone, did you turn around and peek at the toy?” Some kids were told, “If you looked at the toy, you will be in trouble” and others were told, “If you looked at the toy, you won’t be in trouble.” Unsurprisingly, 68 percent of kids looked at the toy, and almost all of them (67 percent) lied about doing so. However, kids were less likely to tell the truth if they were afraid of being punished than if they knew they wouldn’t get scolded.
“Kids lie to avoid negative consequences so if they know there’s a punishment in their future, they probably won’t confess to their crimes,” study author Victoria Talwar, associate professor of educational and counseling psychology, tells Yahoo Parenting. Talwar also found that older kids were more likely to lie and spin more sophisticated tales than younger ones, whose lies were more fantastical. She adds that parents can encourage honesty by creating a safe place to tell the truth.
“Rewarding kids for their honesty is a great way to teach them accountability,” Fran Walfish, PsyD, a Beverly Hills-based child psychologist, tells Yahoo Parenting. “It’s not enough for children to say, ‘Fine, I did it.’ You want them to own their behavior.”
For starters, it’s important to recognize that the younger the child, the more active the imagination. So if your toddler tells his teacher, “Mommy had a baby last night!” when you didn’t, that’s far different than him not being able to differentiate between right and wrong. So, let’s say your kid looks you in the eye and says, no, he didn’t steal his friend’s action figure when it’s in his pocket. Instead of falling back on threats and angry tones, try a more patient approach.
“Gently say to your child, ‘You wanted that toy but your friend said you couldn’t take it. You could have told mom how badly you wanted it so we could figure out a way for you to earn it. But you made a mistake by not telling the truth,’” says Walfish.
Your kid may insist that he didn’t take the toy, so continue with, “It’s important that you and I feel safe with each other and that’s called trust. When you always tell the truth, it makes us feel safe with each other.”
If he denies, denies, denies, insert empathy into the conversation: “It’s hard for us to admit it when we make a mistake.” Still not ‘fessing up? Say, “We both know you took the toy. It’s just hard for you to say it.” It may take a few rounds, says Walfish, but by this point, most kids will tell the truth.
And don’t get so consumed in the lie that the crime itself slips through the cracks — having your kid go back to his friend’s house and apologize is key. “He should sound like he truly means it,” says Walfish. ”When kids learn to own up to their mistakes with genuine sincerity, they’re more likely to be honest adults.”