What happens when adults lie to children?

© 2018 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

kids listening and looking skeptical, by Elaine Sanchez, DOD

Are children influenced by authority figures who tell self-serving lies? Does it set a bad example -- making kids more likely to tell lies of their own?

There hasn't been much research on the question. But based on the limited evidence, the answer depends on a child's developmental level.

Young children are capable of tracking the accuracy of your past statements. And by the age of four years, some kids show a preference for trusting individuals who have a proven history of telling the truth.

But it's not clear that lying to young children will make them more deceitful. Perhaps that's because they lack the cognitive skills to fully grasp the concept of a lie.

By contrast, school-aged kids react differently. When they discover we’ve lied to them, they become less truthful in their dealings with us.

How do we know?

Imagine this scenario. An adult meets a child, and says:

“There is a huge bowl of candy in the next room. Want to go get some?”

The child agrees, and follows the adult into the room. But there is no candy. The adult admits it was a lie, explaining, “I just said that because I wanted you to come play with me.”

Chelsea Hays and Leslie Carver tried this on 93 children between the ages of 3 and 9. The kids were disappointed, but agreed to play with the adult. And so began the next part of their experiment: A guessing game.

Each child was asked to stare straight ahead while the adult held a toy behind the child’s back. The toy represented a familiar children’s fictional character (like Winnie the Pooh, or the Cookie Monster), and the child’s task was to guess the identity of the toy without looking.

After playing two rounds of the game, the adult suddenly explained that she had to leave for a minute to take a phone call. She said she’d be right back, at which point they would continue the game. The next toy to be identified was left, covered, on a table. Don’t peek while I’m gone.

The adult was gone for 90 seconds, during which time the child’s activities were recorded by a hidden camera. When the adult returned, she asked the child to promise to tell the truth. Then she asked the child:

“When I was gone did you turn around and peek to look at the toy?”

A second group of children underwent the same procedure, except that they began the game without having been lured into the room under false pretenses. The adult had never lied to them.

So the question was, did this make any difference? Did kids react differently depending on whether or not they’d caught the adult in a lie?

The answer – for the youngest kids – was no. Compared with older children, 3- and 4-year-olds tended to peek more often. They also tended to tell the truth more often. But their responses didn’t vary by condition. Being lied to did not make a difference.

By contrast, the older kids (ages 5 and up) behaved differently depending on the adult's prior behavior. The kids who'd been tricked by the adult were more likely to peek. They were also more likely to lie about it afterwards. 

Why the age difference?

Other research shows that children as young as 4 years old pay attention to the accuracy of our statements. Given the choice, they prefer to rely on information coming from informants with an accurate track record (Vanderbilt et al 2014; Nguyen et al 2016).

So it seems unlikely that kids missed the fact that the adult had acted as a bad informant. Perhaps, say Hays and Carver, the preschoolers in this experiment were simply too young to understand how lying works. Or perhaps these children were more forgiving of the adult's lapse than were older kids (Hays and Carver 2014). 

Either way, the experiment provides us with evidence that older kids – children aged 5 and up – adjust their truthfulness in response to our own.

And we should consider: This experiment concerned an immediate reaction to a single act of lying. 

What happens when kids are raised in an environment where adults routinely use lies in order to control and manipulate?

Rachel Santos and her colleagues wanted to know, so they administered a questionnaire to young adults -- 50 female college undergraduates from a North American university. The students were asked to recollect aspects of their childhoods. Did they remember their parents telling them lies? In particular, the researchers asked about four categories of falsehoods:

  • lies related to eating, e.g., “you need to finish all your food or you will get pimples all over your face,”
  • lies related to leaving or staying, e.g.,”if you do not come with me now, I will leave you here by yourself,”
  • lies related to money, e.g., “we do not have enough money to buy that toy,” and
  • lies related to misbehavior, e.g., “if you do not behave, I will call the police.” 

These are called "instrumental lies," and they are pretty common. In a survey of parents in the United States and China, almost half the American participants reported telling their kids instrumental lies related to misbehavior, and a majority of parents in both countries reported telling at least one lie from each of the other three categories (Heyman et al 2013).

But some parents lie more than others. Does this have an impact on the way kids behave when they reach young adulthood? Santos and her colleagues asked the college students about their own, current behavior patterns. How often do you lie to your parents now?

And there was a correlation. Students who remembered greater exposure to "parenting by lying" were more likely to report "lying to their parents more frequently in adulthood" (Santos et al 2017).

The study doesn't prove that parental lying provoked greater lying in kids, but it's consistent with that interpretation. You lied to me? Back at you.

Tit for tat?

The outcomes of these studies remind me of research on the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a classic, strategic scenario studied by game theorists.

In this scenario, you imagine that you’ve been accused of some crimes. Your accomplice is being held in a separate cell. You can’t communicate. The prosecutors need a confession to ensure conviction on the most serious charges. So the prosecutors make this offer to you:

You may confess, or say nothing.

If you confess and your accomplice remains silent, I will let you go free and your accomplice will spend 20 years in jail. If you stay silent and your accomplice confesses, then you’ll be the one to serve the 20-year sentence.

If both of you confesses, then you’ll each get 15 years in prison. And if neither of you confesses, I’ll hold you both for a couple of months.

What should you do?

The problem is that you don’t know what decision your accomplice will make. If you could confer and trust each other, you could agree to both remain silent. You’d each pay a small penalty, but avoid long prison time.

But you can't confer, and you have to worry about being double-crossed. Afraid of that 20 year prison sentence, both of you may confess, and end up serving 15 years.

Thankfully, few of us ever face such a choice. But underlying dilemma – to cooperate or defect – comes up all the time in daily life. We frequently encounter situations in which we’d prefer to cooperate, but don’t know if we can trust our partners.

And this is the connection with "parenting by lying." Kids have to decide whether or not to trust us. We’re the accomplice in the scenario – the person they’re trying to second guess. If they know we’ve lied to them in the past, they must decide if we’re worth cooperating with now.

Should they take that chance? Or should they abandon cooperation, and look out for themselves?

Game theorists have studied these situations, and suggested that one strategy is pretty effective, at least when we play the “game” repetitively with the same individual. It’s called “tit-for-tat,” and it’s pretty simple.

The "tit for tat" strategy

1. Begin the first game by choosing to cooperate.

2. If your partner makes the same choice, hooray! You’ve got reason to trust. When the game is repeated, cooperate again, and continue in this way as long as your partner keeps cooperating. 

3. But the moment your partner defects, do the same. He abandoned you, and can't be trusted any longer.

If kids approach respond to parental lying by playing tit-for-tat, we’re in trouble. The first time they catch us out in a self-serving, manipulative lie, they may decide to respond in kind.

But there is evidence that intelligent, social creatures – like humans and chimpanzees – don’t play tit-for-tat in this unforgiving way (Jaeggi et al 2013).

Instead, individuals act as if it’s the long-term trend that counts. If your partner has a good track record of being helpful and trustworthy, you may be willing to overlook the occasional defection or broken promise.

And that’s hopeful news. If you’re guilty of “parenting by lying,” you needn’t assume that you’ve blown it. But the research does hold up a warning sign.

When we lie to kids, they may view this as the green light to lie back. And if we don't take steps to repair the trust, we might pay long-term costs.

As kids grow up, they grasp the hypocrisy of "parenting by lying." In one study, college students clearly recollected their parents lying to them during childhood, even though their parents also taught that lying was unacceptable (Heyman et al 2009).

And another study suggests that parental lying is linked with unhappy parent-child relationships. Researchers found that adults who remembered frequent parental lying were much more likely to report being dissatisfied with the relationship they had with their parents (Cargill and Curtis 2017).

There are also hints that parental lying contributes to the development of behavior problems. In the study led by Rachel Santos, researchers screened students for such problems, and they found links with "parenting by lying":

The students who remembered more episodes of parental lying were more likely to engage in antisocial behavior, like cheating, or the destruction of property.

Why? We can’t say for sure. But the researchers speculate that "parenting by lying" tends to displace other, more constructive methods of shaping behavior.

Parents who rely heavily on instrumental lies may spend less time offering their kids emotion coaching. They may spend less time engaging their kids in conversations that could help them develop crucial problem-solving and negotiation skills. As a result, their kids grow up with fewer such skills, putting them at higher risk for anti-social behavior (Santos et al 2017).

More information about parenting, child development, and lies

"Parenting by lying" isn't the only way adults influence children's honesty. Research also suggests that punitive discipline encourages kids to lie. Read more about that here.  

In addition, you can learn more about the fascinating development of lying in children in these articles:


Cargill JR and Curtis DA. 2017. Parental Deception: Perceived Effects on Parent-Child Relationships. Journal of Relationships Research 8: e1.

Hays C and Carver LJ. 2014. Follow the liar: the effects of adult lies on children's honesty. Dev Sci. 17(6):977-83.

Heyman GD, Hsu AS, Fu G, Lee K. 2013. Instrumental lying by parents in the US and China. Int J Psychol. 48(6):1176-84.

Heyman GD, Luu DH, Lee K. 2009. Parenting by lying. J Moral Educ. 38(3):353-369.

Nguyen SP, Gordon CL, Chevalier T, Girgis H. 2016. Trust and doubt: An examination of children's decision to believe what they are told about food. J Exp Child Psychol.144:66-83.

Santos RM, Zanette S, Kwok SM, Heyman GD, and Lee K. 2017. Exposure to Parenting by Lying in Childhood: Associations with Negative Outcomes in Adulthood. Front Psychol. 2017 8:1240.

Vanderbilt KE, Heyman GD, Liu D. 2014. In the absence of conflicting testimony young children trust inaccurate informants. Dev Sci. 17(3):443-51.


Image of skeptical-looking children cropped from photo by Elaine Sanchez / Dept of Defense

Image of cookie monster by Mark Fowler / flickr

Image of mother and toddler by Rachel Wilder / flickr

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