(This young woman is very honest about not being Supergirl. Really. VladislavStarozhilov/iStockPhoto)
Most of us would probably like our kids to be honest, both for our own sanity in the teenage years and for the good of the world when our kids are grown-ass human beings and they and their peers are running things. Honesty is just a good quality. It’s tough to parent a child or teen who won’t tell you the truth, and the problems get bigger when the child is an adult. Nobody wants to sit across from a known liar during a business deal. If someone has lied and cheated and has been proved to be dishonest, why would anybody think they could trust anything that person says? So most parents would probably like their kids to be honest. The trouble is that there’s no surefire guide for how to raise an honest kid, and teaching honesty is really difficult.
Modeling moral behavior and teaching values usually depends on rewards and punishments. Positive reinforcement is particularly effective, because it gives some sort of reward–approval, praise, etc.–when the child is good. The problem with teaching kids to be honest is that it’s hard to make positive reinforcement work when the situation is basically: “If you tell your mom you punched Sammy in the face, you will get in trouble. If you lie about it, you will not get in trouble.”
The honest response would be admitting to punching Sammy in the face, but it’s not like a parent can reward a kid for that. The better reward is basically to hide it and avoid punishment. Sometimes it seems like life is working against us to train our kids to be sneaky and dishonest.
But according to a new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, there is still something we can do. The Cut’s Cari Romm reports that researchers studying kids and honesty found that children are more likely to tell the truth if they think that their parents will respond well to honesty. That doesn’t mean not punishing kids for doing something bad (I probably should have made up a less-violent hypothetical than punching Sammy in the face), but it does mean that we have to manage to sell honesty as something we value in its own right.
Kids in the study were between the ages of 4 and 9, and they were read stories about kids behaving badly, and then fessing up or keeping the crime a secret. While reading, the researchers would stop and ask the kids what they thought the characters and their parents were thinking and feeling throughout the story, and how the kids thought the characters would feel afterwards if they lied and if they told the truth.
Unsurprisingly, the researchers said that the kids who were more likely to do things in real life like confess to doing something wrong, even in the face of punishment, were the ones who said that being honest would make the characters in the stories feel better, and that the mothers in the stories would prefer that their kids were honest. The researchers said that kids were much less likely to be honest if they felt that their parents would “bite the kid’s head off immediately” upon being told the truth.
“It goes along with the larger picture of being approachable as a parent,” said Craig Smith, research investigator at the U-M Center for Human Growth and Development. “Convey that you’re going to listen without getting angry right away. As a parent, you might not be happy with what your child did, but if you want to keep an open line of communication with your child you can try to show them that you’re happy that your child has told you about it.”
It sounds like we all need to practice taking a deep breath and saying, “I’m glad that you told me” before enacting any deserved punishments. Teaching our kdis to talk to us honestly matters when they are small, and it’s vital when they are older and dealing with issues like drinking, drugs, and bullying.