We all know that children can tell some far-fetched falsehoods from time to time, but most parents believe that they can discern the difference between a truthful report and a tall tale, at least when it comes from their own kids.
That’s what parents reported in a recent study published by the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. Unfortunately for them, and for parents everywhere, the study, “Can Parents Detect 8- to 16-year-olds’ Lies? Parental Biases, Confidence, and Accuracy,” found that although parents were more likely to believe their own children, they were just as hopeless at detecting lies from them as they were from complete strangers.
This study builds on the popular idea of presumed honesty and truth bias. The concept of this is nothing new when it comes to relationships built on trust. A 1997 study by DePaulo et. al. confirmed that adults judged their own friends’ and partners’ statements as more honest than those of complete strangers. And, as one would expect, the closer the relationship, the stronger the truth bias held true. In simple terms: we want to believe the people we love, so we give them the benefit of the doubt. And when it comes to love, most would agree that the parent-child bond trumps all.
So does the same bias hold true for the delicate relationship between parent and child? Are parents more likely to trust their own children? Are parents better at detecting lies from their own children than from children they’ve never met? How about age – are parents more likely to believe younger children than they are to believe teens?
The results are in and the kids take all. Parents are mostly clueless when they’re being lied to.
In the study published in the upcoming July 2016 issue, researchers Evans, Bender and Lee gave children a test during which the answers were readily available on an answer key set to the side. They then filmed the children while asking them if they had peeked at the answers to the test.
Researchers showed the video footage to three groups of adults: childless adults, parents of other kids, and parents of the kids in the videos. While childless adults and parents of other kids were just as inept at identifying lies as the kids’ own parents were, they were far more likely overall to predict that kids were indeed lying.
Meanwhile, parents of the kids in the videos were nearly twice as likely to predict that the answers were truthful. In reality though, these parents were no more accurate in their predictions than the other groups of adults. And, for the record, their kids were no less guilty of cheating. Simply put, the parents in the study were twice as likely to believe their own kids even when the kids were lying.
So what's it all mean? Parents believe and trust their children, even when the trust is unfounded. And of course, trust is central to any relationship. But can too much trust be a bad thing?
It’s not uncommon to read about juvenile offenders or even convicted felons whose parents maintain their innocence against all odds. And even once their offspring are found guilty, parents often plead for lighter sentences while justifying the behavior of their convicted children. Remember the infamous letter written by Brock Turner’s father after the Stanford rape trial? While unconditional love is an admirable and even necessary trait of parenting, it seems that it can also obscure reality when it comes time for children to take responsibility.
This study suggests that it may be time for us parents to step back and evaluate our kids more objectively. We can continue to love, support, and encourage our kids but if we want to raise a generation that takes responsibility for their actions, perhaps we need to stop giving them the automatic benefit of the doubt, and start holding them accountable for their actions.