SINGAPORE: Parents who lie to their children out of convenience may be doing more harm than good, leading their offspring to lie more to them once they become adults.
An example of such a mistruth includes the common refrain: “If you don’t behave, I’ll call the police.”
While parenting by lying can seem to save time, a new study led by Nanyang Technological University (NTU) showed that lies intended to get children to behave may have lasting effects on their young minds.
The study found that adults who reported being lied to more as children were also more likely to report lying to their parents as adults.
The study, which polled 379 Singaporean young adults using a series of online questionnaires, also showed that these children were more at risk of developing problems that society frowns upon, such as aggression, rule-breaking and intrusive behaviours, NTU said in a media release on Wednesday (Oct 2).
“When parents tell children that ‘honesty is the best policy’, but display dishonesty by lying, such behaviour can send conflicting messages to their children," said lead author Assistant Professor Setoh Peipei from NTU Singapore’s School of Social Sciences.
The research was published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology and conducted in collaboration with the University of Toronto, the University of California, San Diego, and Zhejiang Normal University.
The first questionnaire asked participants to recall if their parents told them lies about misbehaviour, eating, spending money, as well as staying or leaving a place.
Some examples of such lies are “If you don’t come with me now, I will leave you here by yourself” and “I did not bring money with me today, we can come back another day”.
The second questionnaire asked participants to indicate how frequently they lied to their parents as adults. It asked about mistruths concerning their activities and actions, exaggeration about events, in addition to prosocial lies or lies intended to benefit others.
Lastly, participants filled in two questionnaires that measured their self-reported “psychosocial maladjustment" and tendency to behave selfishly and impulsively.
LIAR LIAR, PANTS ON FIRE
Respondents in the study said they faced greater adjustment difficulties such as disruptiveness, conduct problems, experience of guilt and shame, as well as selfish and manipulative character.
“Parents should be aware of these potential downstream implications and consider alternatives to lying, such as acknowledging children’s feelings, giving information so children know what to expect, offering choices and problem-solving together, to elicit good behaviour from children,” Asst Prof Setoh said.
Asst Prof Setoh added that future research could explore using multiple informants, such as parents, to report on the same variables.
Limitations of the current study include relying on what young adults report about their retrospective experience of their parents’ lying.
The authors also pointed out that as the study is correlational in design and they are unable to draw causal inferences.
Asst Prof Setoh said that another area yet to be investigated would be the nature of the lies or goals of the parent.
“It is possible that a lie to assert the parents’ power, such as saying ‘If you don’t behave, we will throw you into the ocean to feed the fish’, may be more related to children’s adjustment difficulties as adults, compared to lies that target children’s compliance, e.g. 'there is no more candy in the house'."
Future studies could examine this more closely so that researchers can suggest what kind of lies to avoid, and what kind of truth-telling parents should engage in, she added.
The research was funded by the Ministry of Education’s Social Science Research Thematic Grant and Nanyang Technological University’s Start-up Grant.