Study Shows Kids Become More Skeptical as They Age—an Expert Explains Why This Is Good

Kids start questioning dubious claims at a young age. Here's why caregivers should nurture this.

Tween looking at camera with unsure look on their face
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Those little white lies you tell your kids, such as calling omelets "egg pizza," may not be going over the way you think they are.

Children become more skeptical of what adults tell them as they get older, according to a new study published in Child Development.

Researchers from the University of Toronto and Harvard University looked at two preregistered studies to determine whether and why children dig deeper into surprising claims.

In the first study, researchers gave 109 children ages 4 to 6 three objects: a rock, a sponge-like material, and a hacky sack. They asked questions such as, "Is the rock hard or soft?" All the children said hard. But, then, some were told something contradictory like, "Actually, the rock is soft, not hard." Other children were told they were correct and that the rock was hard. When asked if the rock was hard or soft a second time, all the children—including the ones who were told it was soft—maintained that it was hard.

The second study looked at children ages 4 to 7. Experimenters told participants that an adult made a surprising claim, such as "The sponge is harder than the rock." Children ages 6 to 7 were more likely to ask to see for themselves. For example, some asked if they could touch the rock and the sponge. Researchers believe these findings say that children begin to question adults' surprising statements as they age and become more aware of their doubts.

"There is still a lot we don't know," said Samuel Ronfard, assistant professor at the University of Toronto and lab director at the Childhood Learning and Development (ChiLD) Lab, in a news release. "But, what's clear is that children don't believe everything they are told. They think about what they've been told, and if they're skeptical, they seek out additional information that could confirm or disconfirm it."

While this may be a bit of a bummer for the many parents who—understandably—got by telling a little white lie here and there, one expert thinks these findings are positive.

"When children are skeptical, they are learning to problem solve, and learn to think for themselves, which ultimately ends up leading to confidence," says Holly Schiff, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist with Jewish Family Services of Greenwich.

Skepticism can also make children more aware of potential threats, such as getting into a car with a stranger, and able to critically think—a lifelong skill.

While questioning is good, parents do need children to follow their leads at times, such as trusting that it's time for a doctor's appointment or flu shot.

"It is important to build trust with your child, so they believe you when it is warranted," Dr. Schiff says.

Being honest with your child and modeling authenticity can help, as can being open-minded to your child's questions and concerns.

"Make sure to facilitate an environment that welcomes open communication and dialogue so even if they have questions or are skeptical, you respond in a way to further build their trust in you," Dr. Schiff says.

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