Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Punishment helps kids learn to lie

Here’s a news flash.  Parenting is hard.  There are so many competing goals.  We want to raise happy kids, but also good kids who will do the right thing.  We want our kids to be smart, honest, kind, and generous.  And ideally we would do all of that while being nurturing all the time.

Of course, the real world doesn’t make it easy to be a nurturing parent.  Kids have minds of their own.  They want to explore the world, to try new things, and to make their own mistakes.  They push the limits of the rules we create, and they find ways to push our buttons. 

Most parents manage to strike a balance between being a nurturing and loving parent and having to punish when necessary.

What happens when the balance swings too far toward punishment?

There is some research suggesting that when children grow up in an environment with extensive physical and verbal they are at risk for behavioral problems as they get older.

A fascinating study by Victoria Talwar and Kang Lee in the November, 2011 issue of Child Development explored how an environment with lots of punishment affects lying in 3- and 4-year-old children. 

The study took advantage of a natural experiment in a West African country.  In this country (not identified in the paper), there was a long history of corporal punishment in the schools including beatings when children did something wrong.  Although corporal punishment has been outlawed in the public schools in the country, private schools are still allowed to use it. The researchers went to one private pre-school that used corporal punishment and a second that did not.   

To explore lying, the children were first given a temptation.  The experimenter told the children that a toy was being hidden behind them.  The experimenter said that she had to leave the room for a moment and that the child should not turn around and peek at the toy while she was gone. 

This situation is quite tempting, and most children end up turning around and looking at the toy.  When the experimenter returns, she asks the children whether they peeked.

At the school where the children are punished often, about 90 percent of them lied to the experimenter and said that they did not look at the toy.  In the school that did not use harsh punishments, only about half of the children lied.

Of course, young children are often bad liars.  So, the experimenter asked a follow-up question.  She asked the children who lied to guess what they thought the toy was.  Children who are bad liars will identify the toy that they saw.  Good liars will not let on that they know what the toy is.

In this study, about 70% of the children from the school that did not use harsh punishment identified the toy when asked.  Only about 30% of the students from the school that used harsh punishment identified the toy.

Putting this together, the children who went to the school where they got harsh punishments were more likely to lie and were better liars than the ones who went to the school where they were not punished harshly. 

Ultimately, even young children learn survival skills.  In situations where they are being severely punished, children learn ways to avoid that punishment.  They learn how to lie and how to do it effectively.  As children get older, those lies get bitter. 

In the end, even though punishment seems to work to keep children in line, it ultimately increases the bad behaviors it aims to stop.

Nix, R. L., Pinderhughes, E. E., Dodge, K. A., Bates, J. E., Pettit, G. S., & McFadyen-Ketchum, S. A. (1999). The relation between mothers' hostile attribution tendencies and children's externalizing behavior problems: The mediating role of mothers' harsh discipline practices. Child Development, 70, 896-909.