Tell Me Lies: Children Learn to Flatter at age 4

Like to hear how much your child adores you? Children learn to tell social lies around 4 years old—that’s right, they learn how to flatter others and tell you just what you want to hear!

In the spirit of the Powerful Word of the month—honesty–it’s humorous that we don’t always want our children to tell the truth all the time, do we? If they did, you might be startled by what you hear. See this 30 second clip from one mother whose child hasn’t censored his real thoughts about her as an example…

A Chinese-Canadian study out of the University of Toronto shows that even young children know the power of flattery. The researchers focused on 285 children ages 3-6 years old, and asked the youngsters to rate drawings by children and adults who they knew, as well as to rate the drawings of strangers.

The preschoolers were asked to judge these art pieces both when the artist responsible was present as well as when the artist was absent. While the 3 year olds were consistently honest no matter if they had a relationship with the artist or if the artist was there to hear their assessments, the 5 and 6 year olds gave more flattering ratings to those artists who were present to hear their remarks. Interestingly, they flattered both strangers and those people who they knew—however, those whom they had a relationship consistently received the highest praise.

Among the 4 year olds, half the group provided flattering remarks when the artist was present and half did not. This finding suggests that 4 years old marks a transition from honest critique to flattery as the child gains a better understanding of the culture’s social courtesies.

Kang Lee, director of the Institute of Child Study at OISE/U of T and co-author of the report (recently published in the journal Developmental Science) isn’t certain of why the children flatter at this age but he knows that something is definitely going on:

“I’m sure politeness and empathy play some role,” Lee tells a reporter “But the fact they gave higher ratings to some groups than others suggests there is some form of ulterior motive beyond just being polite. We socialize kids to show empathy and politeness to everybody, not more to some people than to others.”

We can look to adults to glean some possible answers. According to Lee, adults flatter because; (1) They are showing gratitude for some positive; or (2) They’re creating a bridge with someone whom they’re meeting for the first time in case that person could be important for their advancement later down the road—it’s viewed as an “investment” in their positive treatment from the other person in the future.

“We don’t know which the child is doing…They are thinking ahead, they are making these little social investments for future benefits.”

In my assessment, the children may also be reacting to other social beliefs that mean statements may “get them into trouble” and nice statements make others happy, which feels good to everyone. Lee previously studied the responses of children ages 3 to 11, who were given gifts they didn’t like. Findings suggest that even 3-year-olds tell white lies to avoid hurting the feelings of the gift-giver.

Regardless of the reason for the flattery, our society does indeed teach children that honesty isn’t always the best policy, even if we tell them that they should always tell the truth. Adults do it themselves. We spare the feelings of others by telling them we like the “great book” they gave us of the “beautiful scarf” they knitted for a friend. But Lee suggests the flattery is motivated by self-interest and can annoy those who watch it happening (i.e. when an employee is flattering the boss).

“Kids at 4 or 5 are able to make distinctions already – that this lie is bad but this one is not very bad.”

Note: Your children will be discussing the question; “is honesty always the best policy” in the 4th week of this month’s Powerful Words curriculum. Aside from flattery, and “good” secrets like surprise parties for family of friends, all Powerful Words Member Schools will be discussing honesty with regard to strangers. Questions like, “should we tell strangers our phone number and address?” (for young children) and “how honest should we be with strangers on line?” (for older students), among others, will be explored.

All Powerful Parents are encouraged to use the Powerful Words curriculum as a Springboard for discussion at home or in the car to discuss how honesty plays a role in your family’s life and what your policies on are with regard to lying and telling the truth in different situations (i.e. when they made a mistake, when grandma gives them a gift they don’t like, when a stranger approaches them and asks them personal information, etc.) Stay tuned to your Powerful Words member schools for additional information on this topic.

We’re looking forward to hearing your comments on this topic as well as any child development issue! Please put your questions and comments below so we can create a dialog on these topics!

Thanks!

*image from Jupiter images.

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