When I leave birthday cakes to cool on the counter, I often come back to find craters in the layers—and my preschooler standing nearby with an ear-to-ear grin and crumbs around his mouth. I don’t need to ask him what happened, but I can’t help myself. “I don’t know! What in the world!,” he replies. 

Dishonesty is common among children (and adults) and begins as early as age three. Apart from lying to cover up a misdeed, children also commonly tell lies to be polite. In some ways, lie-telling is evidence that kids have reached important developmental milestones because it requires both cognitive and social maturity—understanding that others can have different beliefs from your own, being able to flexibly maneuver conflicting information in the mind, and recognizing societal expectations of when to be truthful and when to tell a lie. 

While my son’s stealthy taste tests make me chuckle, I do want him to learn honesty as he grows. Being trustworthy helps strengthen relationships, especially children’s relationships with their family, teachers, and friends. But dishonesty—such as lying to parents or cheating in games with friends or on tests at school—can lead to conflicts and sometimes reflects larger problems.

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Parents play an important role in helping their children value honesty, and recent research offers some suggestions for how to do this.

1. Praise process, not intelligence

Parents give praise to show their children that they noticed something positive. But does the incentive of praise ever motivate kids to be dishonest?

Researcher Li Zhao and her colleagues studied cheating among 300 three- to six-year-old children in China. They randomly assigned the children into three groups to compare how frequently they peeked during a guessing game. Children in the first group were praised for their ability: “You’re so smart.” Researchers praised children in the second group for their performance: “You did very well this time.” In the final group, researchers did not offer any kind of praise. 

Regardless of age, children who received praise for being smart were more likely to peek (60 percent) compared to children who received performance praise (41 percent) or no praise (40 percent). “Ability praise may have motivated children to cheat in order to uphold . . . the reputation of being smart,” explain Zhao and her colleagues. 

These findings are in line with another study by Zhao and her colleagues. They found that children who were told they had a reputation for being smart—“I know teachers and kids in your class and they told me you are a smart kid”—were more likely to peek during a card guessing game compared to children told they had a reputation for being clean or not told anything about their reputation.

“Ability praise may have motivated children to cheat in order to uphold the reputation of being smart”
―Li Zhao et al.

Rather than encouraging a “fixed” mindset by commenting on children’s intelligence, encourage a growth mindset by giving praise for their efforts to persist in the face of a challenge. For example, you can praise children’s process by saying, “I noticed that you stuck with that game even when it got tricky until you figured out a strategy that worked!”

2. Beware of the downsides of rewards

Rewards like sweet treats or small toys are sometimes part of the parent toolbox to help get children to do things they might not be highly motivated to do, like clean up their toys or brush their teeth. But rewards like this may have unintended consequences for children’s honesty. 

Researcher Hüseyin Kotaman explored this in a study of 77 four to six year olds in Turkey. The children were asked to complete a labyrinth puzzle to help a girl find her way home; some were told they’d be given a lollipop reward for correctly solving the puzzle, while others were not. Children working for a lollipop reward were almost twice as likely to peek at the solution when the researcher stepped out of the room compared to the other children (51 percent versus 26 percent).

“When the reward was offered for the labyrinth puzzle, children’s primary aim was to obtain the reward, not to solve the labyrinth. Therefore, the task has little or no internal value for the child,” Kotaman explains. “An external reward may be the most valuable thing to be obtained from a task, leading the child to focus on the reward.”

In other words, rewards can undermine intrinsic motivation. If children are already really interested in something—in this case, doing a fun puzzle—then introducing a reward undercuts that interest and their motivation shifts to getting that reward. In everyday situations, parents can be on the lookout for their kids’ natural curiosity about the world to nurture their love for learning and problem-solving—and save stickers or candy rewards for more mundane tasks, like getting a dental checkup or a flu shot.

3. Ask kids to make a commitment

Angela Evans and her colleagues found that children—like adults—are more honest after making a commitment to be.

Ninety-nine Canadian children, ages three to five, played a guessing game and were told not to peek when the researcher stepped out of the room. They were randomly assigned to one of three groups. Researchers told the children in the first group not to peek. Children in the remaining two groups were also told not to peek and either said “OK” in agreement or repeated, “I will not turn around and peek at the toy.” 

The findings? Overall, 74 percent of children peeked. Children who repeated the full verbal commitment were less likely to peek compared to the other two groups; simply saying “OK” didn’t seem to promote honesty. What’s more, children who repeated the verbal commitment, yet still peeked, took longer to do so—suggesting that they were more aware of the tension between wanting to peek and wanting to make good on their word.

Evans and her colleagues explain, “Considering our words are acts within themselves that can impact reality, we believe that verbalizing the commitment increased children’s obligation to fulfill their commitment.” 

What does this finding mean for parents? Talk with your kids about your expectations for them to be honest and, rather than just seeking agreement, ask them to explain how they will be truthful. For example, before you walk away from a checkers game to take a phone call, invite your children to say they will leave the pieces just as they are until you come back so that you can finish the game fairly.

Our next family birthday is a week away. I plan to bake the birthday cake and—armed with these new strategies to cultivate honesty—perhaps this one will be spared from a covert early indulgence by my preschooler.

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