When it comes to morality, as research has shown, little kids don’t really do nuance — there’s right, and there’s wrong, and there’s not really space in between for messy things like effort or intent.
For all their moral snobbery, though, kids can be pretty bad at living up to those same high standards, particularly when there’s a punishment on the line: One the one hand, you can tell the truth about that bad thing you did and get in trouble; on the other hand, you can lie and avoid it. Unless the adults in your life have spent a lot of time hammering on the importance of honesty, there’s not really much incentive to go with option number-one.
Which is the crux of a new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: If honesty is a teachable trait, why not give young kids a better incentive to learn it? The study authors recruited kids aged 4 through 9 and asked them to read two stories about children behaving badly: In one, the main character stole candy from a friend; in the other, they pushed someone off a swing. Half of the kids read stories in which the candy-stealer confessed to their mother about the crime, and the swing-pusher lied; for the other half, it was the other way around. For each one, the researchers interrupted the kids throughout their reading time to ask them for their thoughts about the offenders — what they thought the characters were feeling, how strong their emotions were, why they felt the way they did — and, once the kids had finished reading, also asked them similar questions about the characters’ mothers.
At the same time, the study authors also administered a questionnaire to the kids’ parents, asking them to rate how well certain statements about lying, like “Will confess to a wrongdoing, even if unlikely to be found out,” described their child. The kids who were better at telling the truth, as it turned out, were also the same ones who tended to link honesty in the stories to more positive emotions, declaring that the characters would feel better once they came clean — and that the fictional moms would be glad they did.
The real-world takeaway, the researchers argue, is that kids are more inclined to be honest when they know honesty will please their parents. “It goes along with the larger picture of being approachable as a parent,” lead author Craig Smith, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, said in a statement. “Convey that you’re going to listen without getting angry right away.” It’s not a question of not getting mad, in other words; it’s more an issue of prefacing with an “I’m glad you told me” before launching into the harder stuff. Telling the truth is a lot more appealing when kids know they’ve done good — but still, just in case, it’s probably best not to let on how terrible you are at catching their lies.