The research published in December in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology was titled “The effects of punishment and appeals for honesty on children’s truth-telling behavior.”[ii] And, it does not exactly say that the threat of punishment has no effect on whether or not children will lie.
What it did say was that for children who choose to disobey, two thirds will choose to lie about it. And, that this number is increased when the child expects to be punished. It also said that when children are reminded that it is important to tell the truth, and that others will be pleased if they do, that they are less likely to lie.
The study included 372 boys and girls ages 4 to 8 years who agreed to be a part of an experiment in which they were supposed to guess the identity of a toy that they could not see, but could hear a sound that it made. In the middle of the experiment the adult would leave and tell the child not to peek at the toy. When the adult returned the child would be asked if they peeked. Of those 372 children, 251 peeked (68%) and 121 did not. (32%) Of those who peeked, 167 (67%) lied about it and 84 (33%) did not.
The important thing the study did not address was why the 121 obeyed. It is reasonable to assume that children who are disobedient will also lie about it. This raises three important questions. Why does punishment not deter them? Why did the other children choose to obey? Why did a third of the children who peeked choose not to lie about it?
The answer to the first question is found in the fact laws and punishment do not keep people from breaking them. Watch the news tonight and you will see this lived out. Paul in his letter to the Romans spoke of the sin of envy and coveting. The law said, “you shall not covet…but sin taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind…” (Romans 7:7-8) Paul describes what every parent knows. Tell the child “no” and you can often expect that they will do exactly what you told them not to do.
The solution is not punishment. Paul says later, “Who will set me free…” from this? “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord…” The solution is first the grace of salvation to be found in Christ.
Then as the second question asked, why do some children chose to obey? The answer can be found in scripture. Paul would tell parents and fathers in particular to “…bring children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4) After grace, training and instruction are vital for a child to grow morally. I suspect that the children who obeyed had parents who had taught them that it was important.
The third question, why did some children even when they had disobeyed chose not to lie about it? One thing the study saw was that children who were told that it would please the adult if they told the truth were less likely to lie. Respect for adult authority is an important part of a child’s behavior. But, it is small when compared to love.
The love that a child has for a loving parent and eventually the love that child has for God will eventually decide their behavior in a way that punishment of any kind cannot match. As Paul said to the Corinthians, “the love of Christ controls us…!” (2Corinthians 5:14) If pleasing adults can change the behavior of children, think what loving God will do. Children begin the march to adulthood and learn not to lie when they make faith in Christ their own. In that process when by grace they make the truth of scripture their own, then glorifying God, not avoiding punishment becomes their reason not to lie.
[i] McGill University. "Punishing kids for lying just doesn't work." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 8 December 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/12/141208144150.htm>.
[ii]Victoria Talwar, Cindy Arruda, Sarah Yachison. The effects of punishment and appeals for honesty on children’s truth-telling behavior. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 2015; 130: 209 DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2014.09.011