Stop Sorta-Lying to Your Kids: They’re Onto You

Photo: M. Scott BrauerMIT

Anyone who has spent time around kids knows that there are situations that call not for lying to them, but for not telling the entire truth either. “Where did your pet ferret go? Well, he’s certainly not here with us anymore, that’s for sure. Oh, hey, look at that tree over there!” A new study from MIT shows that, in one experimental setting at least, kids can sense when an adult is withholding useful information.

The setup, via the press release:

In the first experiment, children aged 6 and 7 were given a toy to explore on their own until they discovered all of its functions. One group of children received a toy that had four buttons, each of which activated a different feature — a windup mechanism, LED lights, a spinning globe, and music — while the other group was given a toy that looked nearly identical but had only one button, which controlled the windup mechanism. Then the children watched as a “teacher” puppet demonstrated the toy to a “student” puppet. For both toys, the teacher’s instruction was the same: He demonstrated only the windup mechanism.

Not surprisingly, the kids with the cooler toy rated the teacher-puppet as much less helpful. Then, in a second experiment, things got more interesting:

The second experiment began the same way, with the children exploring the toy, then seeing either a full or incomplete demonstration of its functions. However, in this study, the teacher then brought out a second toy. Although this toy had four functions, the teacher demonstrated only one. 

Children who had previously seen a demonstration they knew to be incomplete explored the toy much more thoroughly than children who had seen a complete demonstration, suggesting that they did not trust the teacher to be fully informative.

In other words, the kids caught on pretty quickly that stuff — cool, spinning, light-up stuff — was being hidden from them. So they’re smarter than they look, which is worth keeping in mind the next time a precocious youngster asks you where babies come from.