A new study out of McGill University re-evaluated an age-old question about children’s honesty over their misbehaviors.* Researchers observed hundreds of children between the ages of 4 and 8. The children were individually told that there was a toy in the room with them, but they were warned that they were not allowed to look at it. Researchers then left the room, and the children’s behaviors were recorded. When researchers returned, each child was asked if he had peeked or if he had followed the instructions to abstain from looking.

For parents of children of this age range, it won’t come as any surprise that nearly 68% of the children peeked. That means that only one-third of these children were successfully able to inhibit their developmentally appropriate impulses and curiosity.

It should also come as no surprise that about 67% of the children who peeked had lied about their peeking behavior. Not only were these children unable to hold back their urges, but they were also unable to admit the misbehavior.

Another finding suggests that the older children in the sample were not only more likely to lie, but they were also savvier when endorsing the lie. This may suggest the additional importance of early intervention with younger children to reduce lying behaviors before they become more adept and skilled.

What might be the most interesting finding, though, is that the children were most likely to lie if they were afraid of punishment. This has very important implications for parenting and caring for young children.

Here are a few recommendations if you suspect your young child of lying and want to nip this behavior in the bud:

  1. Calm yourself before broaching the topic with your child. Take a minute, along with a few slow deep breaths, if needed.
  1. Try to turn this situation into a learning environment. Set up an opportunity for teaching, not an interrogation.
  1. Remind your child that truth and honesty are valued in your family.
  1. Inform them that mistakes happen. Mistakes are normal and expected. Framing their misbehavior as a “mistake” will not shame or scare them and will prove more conducive in maintaining a safe, open, and honest learning environment.
  1. Clarify that they are not “in trouble” if they admit a mistake. Focus primarily on encouraging truth-telling rather than on misbehavior. You may even try sharing a more benign example of your own mistakes if you anticipate truth-telling to be difficult for your child.
  1. Reward your child with verbal praise and affection for telling the truth. The positive attention for telling the truth is the most effective reinforcement available to encourage future truth-telling.
  1. Offer assistance and guidance to problem-solve together what may have gone wrong leading up to the misbehavior.
  1. Remind your child that he is loved and cared for unconditionally, even when he makes mistakes.

Disclaimer: These recommendations are intended for infrequent mild to moderate lies about misbehaviors (i.e., failing to perform chores, skipping a hygiene task, sneaking a cookie). If you are worried that the misbehaviors are more severe but you are unsure, you may want to consult a parenting coach or counselor. If your child has developed a more pervasive pattern of frequent lying, you may also want to consult with a therapist or psychologist. We at Parents Place are always available for such consultations and support.

*This article is based on the research presented by Amy Novotney in the February 2015 issue of Monitor on Psychology in the “In Brief” column, Vol. 46, No. 2, page 20.

Ellie Pelc, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist at Parents Place in San Francisco and on the Peninsula.