It could be a lie for a lie when it comes to raising dishonest kids, new research from the University of California, San Diego, suggests. Dr. Leslie Carver and her team found that when adults lie to children, those children are more likely to lie and cheat themselves — making even those little white lies a big concern when it come to raising truthful kids.

While the study uses adults who are unfamiliar to the kids rather than long-trusting parents or caregivers, Carver believes the findings shed light on how any adult interaction with kids makes a huge impact on how those children act in outside situations. “The results show that children can be affected by adult behavior, and that we should be careful how we interact with them,” Carver told Medical Daily.

In the study, Carver’s team tested how a group of children, ages 3 to 7, would react in a tempting test of honesty. First, they told half the kids that there was candy in the next room but immediately revealed this was a lie in order to get them to play a game. The rest of the kids entered the game without any experience of having been lied to. This creates two sets of kids: kids who have associated dishonesty with their relationship to the adults, and kids who do not.

During the game, the researchers asked the children to name popular characters like Elmo and the Cookie Monster based on their sounds — think Winnie the Pooh’s catchphrase “There’s a rumbly in my tummy” and Elmo’s “Tickle me.” While these two are fairly easy, the researchers threw in a tough one: Beethoven’s Fur Elise, which has no associated cartoon character. During Fur Elise, the adults left the room to take a "phone call" — leaving it up to the children whether they would cheat by peeking behind the curtain, or keep in good faith. Cameras captured the children’s very move. When the adults returned, they told the children that familiar and quintessential parenting phrase: Tell the truth.

Eighty percent of the children who cheated and lied about peeking had been lied to earlier by the adults.

Why might the children have lied?

While the paper comes to no solid conclusion as to why the children lied, Carver has some theories. “Children might be just imitating the behavior they saw displayed by the adult,” Carver told Medical Daily. But she’s not entirely convinced of this for several reasons. “First, they not only were more likely to lie, but they were also more likely to cheat,” Carver explained. “Second, the preschool children were not as affected, but preschool children are generally great imitators.”

A second, more likely theory according to Carver, is that the lied-to children believe honesty doesn’t count when it comes to a relationship where deceit has already occurred. A third possibility is that the children established the lab setting as a place where lying is normal, and so it’s alright to be dishonest in that particular setting. “We’re doing some follow up studies to try to figure out which of these is the most likely case,” Carver said.

Limitations and Future Research

The study has its limitations — the most obvious being that in this study, the parents who raised the children did not do the lying. “Children have a very different relationship with parents than they do with an unfamiliar experimenter,” Carver said. When it comes to parents, there is usually a “long history of trust” — sometimes an established feeling of safety — and children will react to manipulation differently. So what can parents take away from these findings? Carver says more studies must be conducted to establish any solid conclusions.

“Parenting, in some sense needs that other study to be done before we can answer it - but as a parent myself, I try not to lie to my kids because of these results,” she said. “Certainly if it was a teacher or someone else who children don’t' know well, I think it's a good idea for them not to lie to children.” In the paper, Carver cites previous studies that show most parents believe honesty is important, but admit to lying to their kids, perhaps out to protect them.

But every careful word counts, the study shows. “The actions of parents suggest that they do not believe that the lies they tell their children will impact the child’s own honesty,” explained Carver in a Psych Central article. “The current study casts doubt on that belief.”

Source: Hays C, Carver L. Follow the liar: the effects of adult lies on children's honesty. Developmental Science. 2014.