When it comes to morality, as research has shown, little kids don’t really do nuance — there’s right, and there’s wrong, and there’s not really space in between for messy things like effort or intent.
For all their moral snobbery, though, kids can be pretty bad at living up to those same high standards, particularly when there’s a punishment on the line: One the one hand, you can tell the truth about that bad thing you did and get in trouble; on the other hand, you can lie and avoid it. Unless the adults in your life have spent a lot of time hammering on the importance of honesty, there’s not really much incentive to go with option number-one.
Which is the crux of a new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: If honesty is a teachable trait, why not give young kids a better incentive to learn it? The study authors recruited kids aged 4 through 9 and asked them to read two stories about children behaving badly: In one, the main character stole candy from a friend; in the other, they pushed someone off a swing. Half of the kids read stories in which the candy-stealer confessed to their mother about the crime, and the swing-pusher lied; for the other half, it was the other way around. For each one, the researchers interrupted the kids throughout their reading time to ask them for their thoughts about the offenders — what they thought the characters were feeling, how strong their emotions were, why they felt the way they did — and, once the kids had finished reading, also asked them similar questions about the characters’ mothers.