Screaming at your toddler for finger-painting your computer won't deter future acts of deviant self-expression, but it will probably help her tell a more convincing lie in ten years about the missing vodka in your liquor cabinet.
In a study most likely funded by crafty, far-sighted children hoping to dissuade stern parents from punishing them, researchers Victoria Talwar and Kang Lee explored how an environment with lots of punishment affects lying tendencies in 3 and 4 year-old children by presenting children at two West African preschools — one of which uses corporeal punishment — with a tempting opportunity to tell a lie about taking a forbidden peek at a toy. According to the Art Markman of the Huffington Post, the researchers placed a toy in a room behind a child, giving that child instructions not to turn around and look, which of course most of the kids did either because toddlers are notoriously lacking in self-discipline or because Pixar's tales of toy animus have been so widely dispersed that children on every continent are now terrified of being alone in a room with a toy that might come to life and demand to be played with. In the school that used corporeal punishment, a whopping 90% of the kids lied about looking at the toy, whereas only about half the kids at the more placid school told the same, self-preserving fib. "Of course," writes Markman, probably because he's never seen Problem Child, "young children are often bad liars."
So, the experimenter asked a follow-up question. She asked the children who lied to guess what they thought the toy was. Children who are bad liars will identify the toy that they saw. Good liars will not let on that they know what the toy is.
In this study, about 70% of the children from the school that did not use harsh punishment identified the toy when asked. Only about 30% of the students from the school that used harsh punishment identified the toy.
The kids who thought that someone was going to physically harm them were way more likely (and better conditioned to) lie about breaking the rules and while this may seem like ‘duh' study to most people who know the value of positive reinforcement, it's always nice to have some empirical evidence that physically punishing young children for childish transgressions will help ensure that they'll learn that all they have to do to avoid accepting responsibility for their fuck-ups is deny, deny, deny.
A Punitive Environment Fosters Children's Dishonesty: A Natural Experiment [Wiley Online Library]
Punishment Helps Kids Learn To Lie [HuffPo]