Craig Smith, University of Michigan – Children and Confessions

How do you get children to fess up to bad behavior?

Craig Smith, research investigator at the University of Michigan, explores how reacting positively might help increase confessions.

Dr. Craig Smith’s research focuses on children’s social cognitive development and links to social behavior. Examples of specific areas of interest are: children’s developing understanding of distributive and retributive justice, children’s understanding of antisociality, children’s reactions to conflicts and mitigating accounts (apologies, confessions, etc.), influences on children’s money saving and spending behaviors, links between math performance and cognition about fairness, and children’s use of social input as a guide for future thinking.

Craig is currently the director of the Living Lab project at the University of Michigan. The Living Lab is a research/education model that brings developmental research into community settings such as museums and libraries. The UM Living Lab sites currently include the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, the UM Museum of Natural History, and the main branch of the Ann Arbor District Library. Since the start of the Living Lab project in 2012, over 3,000 children and families have participated in research in these community settings, and thousands more have had opportunities to converse with researchers studying child development.

Children and Confessions


Imagine that you ate a cookie that someone in your family was expecting to eat. ‘Who did this?!’ the person will ask. You can say it wasn’t you.  You can tell the truth.  What emotions do you associate with each option?

My colleague Michael Rizzo and I explored just this issue with a group of children.  Why ask about emotion?  The emotions we associate with future actions can make us more or less likely to engage in certain behaviors. 

In the study, we showed a group of 4-to-5-year-olds and a group of 7-to-9-year-olds stories about children who did bad things; for example, stealing a friend’s candy.  All participants saw one story end with a child confessing to his mom, and another story end with a child lying to his mom (for example, saying that a dog ate the friend’s candy).

At various points in the stories, we asked the participants what they thought the story character – let‘s call him Bill — would feel.  The younger children thought Bill would feel better after lying compared to confessing, pointing out that Bill avoided punishment with the lie. The older children associated relatively positive emotions with confession and negative emotions with lying, and were more likely to talk about the wrongfulness of lying. Other studies indicate that even preschool-age children know that lying is wrong; but we found that preschoolers associate relatively positive emotions with this behavior.

We also asked what they thought Bill’s mother would feel after he confessed. And, we had the children’s’ parents fill out a survey about how often their children confess to real-life misdeeds.  We found something interesting.  Children who expected Bill’s mom to feel happy about the confession were reported by their own parents to confess more in real life, compared to the children who expected Bill’s mom to be mad about the confession.  A takeaway?  While we might get mad at some of the things our kids do, letting them know that you’ll always be happy about truth-telling may encourage children to take that scary step of confessing to a misdeed or mishap.

  1. Keith Johnson

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