Anyone who doesn’t accept this as a statement of fact either isn’t a parent, or is in for a terrible surprise one day from their cherubic little angel.
It isn’t every kid who is a pathological lying demon-spawn nor do those kids who do have a tendency to gild the lily do so on every occasion but the common mythology that children of a certain age aren’t either capable of, or pre-disposed to, fabrication is just that – a myth.
When a child prevaricates about canine homework consumption, the lie is easily brushed aside. No harm, no foul. But when a child adds technicolour to evidence in a criminal trial, the stakes are too high for quaint reliance on wishful mythology. It is therefore vitally important for child welfare and police authorities to exercise a high degree of cautious professionalism predicated on research-based best-practices when questioning a child who may have evidence in a criminal proceeding.
Currently, police engage in a brief exercise before taking a statement from children assessing whether the child understands the importance of telling the truth and cautioning the child of the negative consequences and punishments associated with lying. Officers will often ask a child to explain to them ‘what happens if you don’t tell the truth’ or ask a child ‘do you know why it’s wrong to tell a lie’? A fascinating study recently conducted at the University of Toronto’s Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study suggests that a focus on the negative ramifications of lying may be the wrong way to encourage honesty from children.
The study focussed on children between 3-7 years old. Children were asked to identify a hidden toy by the sound it made. Researchers would leave the room at one point instructing the child not to ‘peek’ at the concealed toy. Children who followed the direction were excluded from the study but the vast majority succumbed to temptation and snuck a peek (that alone might tell us something about the level of caution that should be exercised in presumptively accepting a child’s evidence). When the researcher returned, the child was read one of four classic fables: The Tortoise and the Hare, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, Pinocchio or George Washington and the Cherry Tree. The fables were carefully selected and categorized. Pinnochio and The Boy Who Cried Wolf strongly associate lying with overtly negative connotations. The Tortoise and the Hare was chosen as a control fable being entirely unrelated to honesty. Finally, George Washington and the Cherry Tree was selected as the quintessential paradigm of positive honesty.
After the selected reading the child was asked to tell the truth about whether he or she had snuck a look at the toy. Children who heard Pinocchio and The Boy who Cried Wolf were no more likely to tell the truth than those who listened to The Tortoise and the Hare control story. However, children who had listened to George Washington proudly assert “I cannot tell a lie!” were three times more likely to confess to peeking than those who heard the other stories. Professor Kang Lee is the author of the study and his current research focus is “the development of lying”. He concludes that “to promote moral behaviour such as honesty rather than negative consequences of dishonesty is the key” to extracting reliable truth from children.
While further research and study is required before importing these results to criminal cases, encouraging police to modify their investigative behaviour could be an important step in improving the reliability of children’s statements. The process could be repeated by victims’ services immediately prior to a child testifying in court. When coupled with general best practices for the questioning of witnesses (such as the avoidance of leading questions), a scientific research-based approach is likely to enhance the court’s truth-finding objective leading to more just results.
Accepting that children, like all potential witnesses, are capable of telling a lie, must inevitably lead those involved in the criminal justice system to find ways of encouraging truthful testimony. Studies such as Dr. Lee’s demonstrate that the traditional approach applicable to adults – instilling the fear of punishment meted out by police, judges or prosecutors – may be less productive than positive reinforcement of honesty as a virtue. With further study and application, we can hope for a day when no one is wrongfully convicted for chopping down the proverbial cherry tree.