Young children who are exposed to a harshly punitive school environment are more inclined to lie to conceal their misbehavior than are children from non-punitive schools, says a new study.
The study of three- and four-year-old West African children also indicated that children in a punitive environment are able to tell more convincing lies than those in a non-punitive environment.
The research, by Professor Victoria Talwar of McGill University and Professor Kang Lee of the University of Toronto, examined deceptive behaviours in two groups of children living in the same neighbourhood.
One group was enrolled in a private school that used a traditional authoritarian discipline model, in which beating with a stick, slapping of the head, and pinching were administered publicly and routinely for offences ranging from forgetting a pencil to being disruptive in class.
In the other school, also private, children were disciplined with time-outs or scolding and, for more serious offences, were taken to the principal's office for further reprimand.
The study involved an experiment comparing the behaviour of children in the two schools. The children were told not to peek at a toy when left alone in a room.
Most children in both schools couldn't resist the temptation, and peeked at the toy. When asked if they had peeked, nearly all the peekers from the punitive school lied - compared with just over half of those from the non-punitive school.
Further, lie-tellers from the punitive school were better able to maintain their deception when answering follow-up questions about the identity of the toy - by deliberately giving an incorrect answer, for example, or by feigning ignorance, rather than blurting out the name of the toy.
The findings suggest that "a punitive environment not only fosters increased dishonesty but also children's abilities to lie to conceal their transgressions," Talwar and Lee conclude.
The results were published in the journal Child Development.