Beyond black and white: How our perception of grey area evolves as we age

By the time the children are 10-12 years old, they become more aware that truth and lies are less binary. (Shutterstock)

Children have no difficulty distinguishing between what is wrong and right. However, their surety increasingly gets threatened as they age, claims a new study.

Younger children see things more starkly. For them, truths are good and lies are bad. But, by the time the children are 10-12 years old, they become more aware that truth and lies are less binary.

“Children get a lot of messages from their parents saying that lying is always bad, but at the same time they see their parents telling ‘white’ lies to make life easier. Depending on their age, this is likely to be a bit confusing for children,” said Victoria Talwar from the McGill University in Quebec, Canada.

As children get older, their moral evaluations of both lies and truths increasingly gets influenced by whether they think this behaviour will cause harm to either others or themselves.

Younger children saw false confessions to help someone else as being more negative than older ones did.

Younger children are less concerned by truth-telling that had negative consequences for someone else, whereas older children were more conflicted about tattling.

“The older they are, the more interested children are in the consequences of these actions. They are also more able to start looking at the intentions behind the speech,” added Shanna Mary Williams, doctoral student at the McGill University.

Further, the study showed that both young and old children had different views when it came to the skill of deciding which behaviours to reward or condemn.

As children get older, their moral evaluations of both lies and truths increasingly gets influenced by whether they think this behaviour will cause harm to either others or themselves. (Shutterstock)

While younger children may be reflecting what is taught by parents and caregivers when it comes to tattling (i.e. that honesty in all forms is virtuous), the older children may be less likely to reward tattling because they are concerned with how their peers will perceive this behaviour, the researchers observed.

In both cases, parents and teachers need to have a much more involved conversation about truth-telling or lie-telling with children starting as early as the age six, the researchers suggested.

For the study, the team assessed how a child’s moral understanding develops. They studied the behaviour of close to 100 children, aged six to 12.

“Looking at how children see honesty and deceit is a way of gaining insight into different stages of moral and social development,” Talwar said.

The study was published in the journal International Review of Pragmatics.

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