Study Finds Punishing Children for Lying Doesn’t Work

A girl hides cookies behind her backAdults who spend time with children are sometimes surprised by kids’ willingness to lie, even when they’re caught red-handed. Children have to learn to be honest, and the learning process isn’t always easy. Parents frequently resort to punishing their children when they’re dishonest, but a new study suggests that this strategy is unlikely to work.

Why Punishment Doesn’t Stop Lying

To explore how and why children lie, researchers recruited 327 children ranging in age from 4 to 8. They left each child alone in a room for one minute. Researchers placed a toy behind each child, then asked the child not to peek at the toy until the researcher returned. Using a hidden video camera, researchers were able to monitor children’s reactions after the adult left the room.

Most of the children—a total of 251, or 2/3 of the group—looked at the toy. Every one-month increase in age, though, decreased the likelihood that a child would look at the toy. When researchers asked the children whether they had looked at the toy, 2/3 of the children who had peeked—167 children in all—lied. Older children were both more likely to lie and better at maintaining their lies.

The toy was tempting for the children, so it’s no surprise that they couldn’t resist the desire to peek. What researchers found more interesting were the circumstances under which children were dishonest. They found that children who feared being punished were less likely to tell the truth. When children were encouraged to tell the truth because doing so would please the adult or because honesty is the right thing, children were more likely to come clean. Younger children were more likely to tell the truth to please adults, but older children were more likely to have internalized standards of behavior, making them more susceptible to statements about how telling the truth is the right thing to do.

Because children are eager to please the adults in their lives, punishment is unlikely to yield the truth, the study’s authors emphasize. Parents who are interested in encouraging honesty should instead make children aware that honesty will please adults. As children age, they’re more likely to internalize these standards, causing them to choose honesty because it’s the right thing to do.


Don’t punish your child for lying — it just doesn’t work. (2014, December 12). Retrieved from 

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  • Cara

    December 18th, 2014 at 4:40 PM

    So what are we supposed to do? let them continue to lie until they get old enough to recognize on their own that this is wrong?

  • Kim

    December 18th, 2014 at 7:34 PM

    Punishment hardly works for adults.And if it doesn’t for children then maybe were all hard wired to desire to break the punishable offenses and te rules regarding the same.It is no surprise to read children behave the same way as adults.Nothing is as big an incentive to tell the truth as self desire is.And where does this self desire come from?It comes from our life experiences and usually how on the parenting techniques of our parents.And that is why it is so important to show children why you are saying whatever it is you are than to try and dictate to them.Works better and I can say this very honestly as a parent myself.

  • Zane

    December 19th, 2014 at 11:54 AM

    Children always want to please adults and there will be those instances where they feel like they have to lie to get some acknowledgment or approval for whatever it is that they do. You can talk to them about not lying to get what they want and also tell them that lying in the end just causes more disappointment and not happiness about whatever it is that they are talking about.

  • Bart

    December 22nd, 2014 at 4:13 AM

    You may have to find some unconventional ways to punish them but they have to be taught that lying to anyone in any situation is generally the wrong thing to do, and how are they ever going to learn that if there are no consequences for their actions?

  • L.H

    December 22nd, 2014 at 6:21 AM

    Threats never work, no doubt about that. One more thing that came to my mind when reading the above content was that practice is always better than preaching, if you tell your child do not lie and then do it yourself, you really are not setting a good example and they will obviously not follow what you preach. Show them that you follow and there is far more chances of them actually following what you say.

  • Pres

    December 22nd, 2014 at 4:22 PM

    I am often concerned about the stories that my daughter makes up about her daily adventures. Her mom seems to think that they are cute and creative but it worries me that she will so willingly tell me these things and express disbelief and even some anger if I seem to be a little dubious. She is only 6 but I do worry that this could develop into something more serious later on. Should I be concerned?

  • Legan

    December 26th, 2014 at 7:17 AM

    Of course fear of punishment will always be a deterrent.

  • hans

    December 31st, 2014 at 1:00 PM

    I don’t think that you have to be hard handed with the punishment but there has to be a lesson learned somewhere along the way. You can’t let them get off scott free because them what? We would be contributing to a lifetime of lying for that child. They have to be taught that there are other ways to make people proud of you that doe snot have to involve stretching the truth.

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