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Child Development

Can Your Toddlers Tell When You Twist the Truth?

How children detect "sins of omission."

Key points

  • Children are able to accurately evaluate people who omit information, and change their behavior to compensate.
  • When judging credibility, children consider both accuracy and informativeness.
  • A child's ability to recognize the misleading character of information that is omitted may not emerge until they are older.
Pixabay/Finelightarts
Source: Pixabay/Finelightarts

As parents, we strive to protect our children from damaging, traumatic, or otherwise potentially harmful information. Especially when it comes to sharing information about school shootings, terrorist attacks, and other mass casualty events, we believe that less is more. But how much should we color the truth, and can our children see our true colors shining through the smoke screen of well-intentioned white lies? Researchers shed some light on this issue.

White Lies vs. Shades of Gray

Consoling your child who has (accidentally) spotted the evening news about the ax murderer on the loose in your community by reassuring her that he won’t come near the house is different than fudging your timecard or neglecting to tell your partner about having lunch with an ex-boyfriend. But just like an employer or paramour can often see right through you, in some sense, your children can too.

Sins of Omission

Hyowon Gweon et al. (2014), in a piece entitled “Sins of Omission,” explored the extent to which children could detect when teachers were being less than honest.[i] They found that children are able to accurately evaluate people who omit information, and change their behavior to compensate for those who are under-informative. In one experiment, they found that with identical demonstrations of a toy, 6- and 7-year-old children rated the informant lower if the toy had additional functions that were not demonstrated. In a second experiment, they showed that notwithstanding identical demonstrations, 6-year-olds explored a toy more broadly if the informant had previously omitted information. Gweon et al. explain that their results suggest that when judging credibility, children consider both accuracy and informativeness, and adjust their exploratory behavior to compensate when they doubt credibility.

They also note, however, that even though young children can evaluate sins of commission such as false statements, their ability to recognize the misleading character of information that is omitted may not emerge until they are older. True, their experiment did not test communications from the children’s parents. Nonetheless, it sheds light on the ability of young children to analyze credibility clues.

Gweon et al. recognize what they refer to as the “tactics” of truth-telling as involving both strategy and honesty. They conclude with some valuable advice for parents, in light of the reality that apparently, our precious little ones are better lie-detectors than we give them credit for. They advise parents who wish to keep their discourse and disclosure age-appropriate to “tell the truth strategically and carefully, tailoring the information to fit the audience.” Probably good advice for adults, as well.

References

[i] Gweon, Hyowon, Hannah Pelton, Jaclyn A. Konopka, and Laura E. Schulz. 2014. “Sins of Omission: Children Selectively Explore When Teachers Are under-Informative.” Cognition 132 (3): 335–41. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2014.04.013.

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