Evidence That It Works
In a study with 3 to 5-year olds, the children played a guessing game and were assigned to one of three groups: The first group was told not to peek, the second group was told not to peek and also asked to say “OK” in agreement, and the third group was told not to peek and also asked to say “I will not turn around and peek at the toy.” Children who repeated the full verbal commitment were less likely to peek compared to children in the other two groups. If they did peek, they took longer to do so, suggesting that they were more aware of the tension between wanting to peek and wanting to make good on their word.
Why Does It Matter?
Lying is common in childhood and a natural part of development: Students begin to lie as preschoolers because they’ve developed more complex thinking abilities—to take other people’s perspectives and to hold contradictory information in their minds. As they grow older, children can be tempted to cheat at board games to win, cheat during tests at school to get higher grades, or covertly taste dessert before dinner because they want to test the limits of house rules.
But older children who frequently tell lies for self-serving reasons are more likely to also engage in conflict, aggression, and delinquency, and others may see them as insincere and untrustworthy. A key part of children’s development is teaching them what it means to be trustworthy, which helps them have stronger relationships. Young children who are more honest tend to avoid delinquency in adolescence and young adulthood.
Our words can guide our actions, and research suggests that saying they will do something can help students do it. Discussing expectations of trustworthiness with your child and asking them to verbalize a commitment to be honest can increase their sense of responsibility and their obligation to themselves to fulfill that commitment. In comparison, rather than reinforcing their own intention to be honest, simply saying “OK” involves the student agreeing with a teacher’s requests or rules, which shifts their sense of obligation outside themselves.