Strict Parents Raise Kids Who Are Better Liars

Sometimes overly firm parenting can backfire.

When I was growing up, I had a good amount of freedom, which meant that my parents and I were pretty open when it came to communicating about what I was doing. However, I did have some friends with extremely strict parents, and if they ever wanted to do something that their parents were not on board with, they came up with some pretty elaborate lies, the kind of well-concocted stories that were free of holes and somehow always added up. I was always impressed by the intricacy of their tales, not to mention the confidence with which they delivered their lies.

Turns out, this seems to be a pattern in kids who are raised by particularly strict parents, with the science to back it up. Researcher Victoria Talwar, a children’s social-cognitive development expert at McGill University, conducted a study that found kids who fear punishment learn how to routinely lie in order to avoid any consequences.

In the study, Talwar and her colleagues created what they called “The Peeping Game.” Using students from two schools in West Africa—one that was strict and one that was more laid-back—researchers asked the children to guess what an object was that was making a noise by using only sound and not sight. The researchers then left the room, and when they returned, they asked the children what the object was and if they had taken a little peek when they were gone.

To tell if the kids were lying, the researchers had one object make a noise that it was not actually capable of producing, such as a baseball making a squawking noise. The results were interesting: Talwar found that the number of truth-tellers and liars in the laid-back school was pretty average, with a distribution similar to that of other typical Western schools. However, the students from the strict school had a far larger number of liars—and they were quite quick and effective with their lies.

The researchers believe that when kids constantly fear punishment, they begin to adapt to an atmosphere in which they don’t feel safe telling the truth. Thus begins the cycle of frequent lying, and it translates to parent/child relationships as well.

Of course, this doesn’t mean parents should abandon all discipline and structure, but it does suggest that being too draconian and rigid can actually backfire.