Follow the Liar: The Effects of Adult Lies on Children’s Honesty

Honesty is a value that most adults try to instill in children from a young age. Parents, teachers, neighbors, and other society members play a vital role in exhibiting virtue. Paradoxically, these adults often lie, intending to manipulate a child’s behavior. Others use lies to control their children’s emotions and feelings. Being role models, adults have a responsibility to teach children the importance of remaining truthful in all circumstances.

Children are keen observers and will imitate the behavior and actions of adults. Children’s dishonest conduct often comes from imitating the adults around them, as they copy adult behavior. Meltzoff states that children make good use of imitation (1999, p. 2). They learn by watching what parents, teachers, doctors, and other adults around them do. The Social Learning Theory posits that people learn and adopt a personality by observing those who are close to them, and later model the behavior in the future (Hayes, 2000 p. 217).

Bandura’s Bobo doll experiment, which was a study of children’s behavior after watching an adult, demonstrates the potential danger of an adult’s lies on their honesty (Hayes, 2000 p. 590). Children who saw adults act aggressively toward a doll acted violently against the prop when left to play. It is experiments like this that emphasize the concerns about what children learn from adults. If they realize that lying is sometimes rewarded, children will produce the behavior when they are in a position to gain an advantage from it (Hayes, 2000 p. 590). Adults who lie to children are inadvertently modeling this behavior as appropriate to practice in real-life situations. The outcome is that the child develops into a dishonest person. Children will imitate a lying adult and become skilled liars. Adult lies have a way of taking away the value of honesty among children.

As role models, adults have a significant influence on child behavior. They should not ignore a child’s capacity to observe and imitate their actions, especially if an expected gain accompanies lying. If adults take an assured stance on a no-lying policy, children will learn to be honest.


Hayes, Nicky. (2000). Foundations of psychology. Cengage Learning EMEA.
Hays, Chelsea, and Leslie J. Carver. (2014). “Follow the liar: The effects of adult lies on children’s honesty.” Developmental Science 17.6: 977-983.
Meltzoff, Andrew N. (1999). “Born to learn: What infants learn from watching us.” The role of early experience in infant development: 145-164.

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