Montreal

McGill researcher looks at how children perceive lies

Victoria Talwar, associate professor in the Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, at McGill looked at how children evaluate hurtful lies, harmless lies, tattling and confessions.

Researchers used puppets to gauge children's understanding of morality

The researchers showed nearly 100 children aged six to 12 a series of short videos in which puppets either told the truth or lied. (Elaine Thompson/AP Photo)

We teach kids that lying is bad and honesty is the best policy, but we lie to them and around them every day, for a multitude of reasons.

How do those fibs affect how children perceive lies?

Victoria Talwar, associate professor in the Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology at McGill University, has done a number of studies on lying — most recently looking at how children from different age groups evaluate hurtful lies, harmless lies, tattling and confessions.

How they did it

The researchers showed nearly 100 children aged six to 12 a series of short videos in which puppets either told the truth or lied.

Sometimes their lies caused harm — like one character blaming another for their own misdeeds. In other cases, lies were used to protect others. 

The children had to choose whether they would punish or reward the puppet's behaviour.

Older kids' more nuanced views

In general, the kids kept with the "lies are bad, truth is good" mantra, but there were two categories that resulted in some conflict.

False confessions: Young kids saw these as lies and thought they deserved punishment.

Older kids, ages 10 to 12, recognized the lie was told with the intention to help others and weren't sure whether the liar should be punished or rewarded.

Tattling: Younger kids saw it as truth telling and something that should be rewarded.

The older group saw it as negative because of the harm caused to someone else.

Talwar said by eight years old, kids start to see more nuances in lies and truth-telling and they realize tattling isn't positive.

So while the younger children were more likely to see lies and truth as black and white, the older ones made judgments around intent and possible harm to others.

Parents influence if kids lie

Parents have a huge influence on how children think about lying, especially in their younger years, Talwar said.

Is it good to tell kids to never tell a lie?

While Talwar acknowledged there are different schools of thought on the subject, she said it depends on what a child can absorb according to their age. For young children, seeing truth and lies as black and white is easiest to handle. 

"It's not until they get to school age that they start to appreciate these nuances and grey areas, and that's a conversation you can have with your child, so they can learn to appropriately respond in those situations," she said.

With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak

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