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Do Children Lie?



If you've been involved with sexual abuse or rape of child, you've heard that question before: Do children lie?

You've also heard the answers before.  From one side: No, children never lie.  From the other: They're like sponges.

The declaration, therefore, that there has been a "recent increase in child sexual abuse allegations," American Psychological Association Monitor (link to external site), comes as no surprise.  A few courts have had the courage to overturn convictions: for example, the North Carolina court which reviewed the Little Rascals Day Care case.

In the Fells Acre case in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the outcome was a little more convoluted, but the result partially the same: a new trial was ordered, but the children were precluded to testify ever again.  A judge watched tapes of the questioning.  He was horrified.

Some interview techniques are dangerous in that they cause children to lie; for instance:

  • the bias of the interviewer and suggestive interview techniques
  • repetition of questions until the interviewer gets the answer he or she wants
  • reinforcement by the interviewer of the child's wrong answers, for example, by the interviewer's own language or by his or her own body language:
    Oh, honey, you're so smart
    Oh, sweetie, thank you for telling me the truth
    A nodding of the head
    A broad smile
  • leading questions
  • no Pinocchio Test
  • the failure of interviewers to audio or videotape interview sessions use of anatomical dolls

  • NOTE

    Formerly called "anatomically correct dolls."
    More recently called "anatomically detailed dolls."
    Neither expression accurately describes the grotesque dolls.

    The younger the child, the more suggestible.

    A tool which may help defend against the potential dangers is the audio-videotape.

    But some psychologists claim that fifty percent of the time, psychologists, social workers, and judges, even when watching videotaped interviews, cannot tell whether the children were telling the truth or lying.  The Massachusetts judge who watched the children being badgered would likely dispute that conclusion

    Other tools for defending against the potential danger are the social workers' and psychologists' process notes.  They can be a treasure trove of impeachment material.

    In addition to it being impossible to write them contemporaneously with the event, the notes are inadequate more often than not because the workers have not been trained in how to write them.  It can almost be guaranteed that the following types on information will not be in them: the type of questioning used, who spoke first, the exact questions and answers; the interviewer's as well as the child's body language . . . .   But something is better than nothing at all: process notes can be wonderful for impeachment material.

    For more lists and even more details, see Stephen J. Ceci and Maggie Bruck's Jeopardy in the Courtroom: A Scientific Analysis of Children's Testimony.  . Part of one of Dr. Ceci's studies of whether children lie was taped by a crew for 48 Hours on CBS in a segment entitled "Lying and Deception."

    CAVEAT:  Recent experiments of Stephen Ceci and Mary Lyn Crotteau Huffman (link to external site) of Cornell University demonstrated that it was "more difficult to create false memories of emotionally negative events than of neutral or positive events."  That study must be scrutinized, particularly where repeated interviewing and prompting children to remember an event made them more likely than not to believe that false memories were true.   Id.