Media Releases

Harsh discipline fosters dishonesty in young children

October 24, 2011

Study compares lie-telling behaviour in harshly punitive, mildly punitive environments

TORONTO, ON – Young chil­dren exposed to a harsh­ly puni­tive school envi­ron­ment are more inclined to lie to con­ceal their mis­be­hav­iour than are chil­dren from non-puni­tive schools, a study of three- and four-year-old West African chil­dren sug­gests.

The study, pub­lished in the jour­nal Child Devel­op­ment, also indi­cates that chil­dren in a puni­tive envi­ron­ment are able to tell more con­vinc­ing lies than those in a non-puni­tive envi­ron­ment.

The research, by Pro­fes­sor Vic­to­ria Tal­war of McGill Uni­ver­si­ty and Pro­fes­sor Kang Lee of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, exam­ined decep­tive behav­iours in two groups of chil­dren liv­ing in the same neigh­bour­hood. One group was enrolled in a pri­vate school that used a tra­di­tion­al author­i­tar­i­an dis­ci­pline mod­el, in which beat­ing with a stick, slap­ping of the head, and pinch­ing were admin­is­tered pub­licly and rou­tine­ly for offens­es rang­ing from for­get­ting a pen­cil to being dis­rup­tive in class. In the oth­er school, also pri­vate, chil­dren were dis­ci­plined with time-outs or scold­ing and, for more seri­ous offens­es, were tak­en to the principal’s office for fur­ther rep­ri­mand.

The study involved an exper­i­ment com­par­ing the behav­iour of chil­dren in the two schools.  Chil­dren were seen indi­vid­u­al­ly and asked to play a guess­ing game by an exper­i­menter who was born and raised local­ly. The chil­dren were told not to peek at a toy when left alone in a room. Most chil­dren in both schools couldn’t resist the temp­ta­tion, and peeked at the toy. When the exper­i­menter asked if they had peeked, near­ly all the peek­ers from the puni­tive school lied – com­pared with just over half of those from the non-puni­tive school. What’s more, after the ini­tial lie, lie-tellers from the puni­tive school were bet­ter able to main­tain their decep­tion when answer­ing fol­low-up ques­tions about the iden­ti­ty of the toy – by delib­er­ate­ly giv­ing an incor­rect answer, for exam­ple, or by feign­ing igno­rance, rather than blurt­ing out the name of the toy.

The find­ings sug­gest that “a puni­tive envi­ron­ment not only fos­ters increased dis­hon­esty but also children’s abil­i­ties to lie to con­ceal their trans­gres­sions,” Tal­war and Lee con­clude.

In fact, the three- and four-year-old lie-tellers in the puni­tive school were as advanced in their abil­i­ty to tell con­vinc­ing lies as six- to sev­en-year-old lie-tellers in exist­ing stud­ies.  “This find­ing is sur­pris­ing,” the authors note, as “exist­ing stud­ies have con­sis­tent­ly found that chil­dren from puni­tive envi­ron­ments tend to suf­fer gen­er­al delays in cog­ni­tive devel­op­ment.”

“One pos­si­bil­i­ty is that the harsh puni­tive envi­ron­ment height­ens children’s moti­va­tion to come up with any strate­gies that will help them sur­vive in that envi­ron­ment,” Prof. Lee says. “Lying seems par­tic­u­lar­ly adap­tive for the sit­u­a­tion.

“Our study, I think, may serve as a cau­tion­ary tale for par­ents who some­times would use the harsh­est means of pun­ish­ment when they catch their chil­dren lying. It is clear that cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment not only does not reduce children’s ten­den­cy to lie, but actu­al­ly improves their lying skills.”


For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact:

Chris Chipel­lo
Media Rela­tions
McGill Uni­ver­si­ty

Joy­ann Cal­len­der
Media Rela­tions
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to