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Young Children Know When You Break A Promise Or Use A Lousy Excuse!

Recently published research confirms that children as young as three understand and can detect when you break a promise and use a terrible excuse.

The study details

The study, published in the Cognitive Development Journal at Duke University and titled ‘Young Children Judge Defection Less Negatively When There’s a Good Justification’ was carried out by the first author Leon Li as part of his Ph.D. in psychology along with Michael Tomasello, a renowned developmental and comparative psychologist whose current theoretical focus on processes of shared intentionality.

The study aimed to test the level of understanding in young children and whether they understand defection negatively when provided with reasonable justification. In other words, can young children tell when adults break a promise and whether the excuse given is a poor one?

This study is part of more research underway to determine how children behave and treat each other in line with cultural and moral norms.

The outcome

The study used puppets to assess the responses of sixty-four children between the ages of three and five. The puppets promised to show the children a cool toy, then went away, and when they returned, they were empty-handed.

The children’s view of this broken promise was negative. The children’s judgment was less hostile toward the puppet when provided with a reason, such as that they had to help someone. When the children were given no explanation or perhaps a selfish motive, such as wanting to have fun, their response was negative.

When asked in the study, the children agreed that it was wrong to break a promise. The study found that young children understand and appreciate that helping others can take priority over helping them. The study determined that children understand that moral and social obligations are prioritized over their individual needs.

According to Leon Li, who was speaking about the report findings,

“Previous research has suggested that in some cases, young kids will just take any reason to be better than no reason at all. But here we showed that kids do pay attention to the actual content.”


A lasting effect of broken promises?

The study also determined that children aged five were better at articulating what the puppet should or could have done and are very aware of their moral and social obligations.

Curiously, despite the puppet failing to produce a cool toy, the study showed that the children were happy to continue to have a play date with the puppet, suggesting that they had not yet developed the connection between broken promises and being a poor friend.

In summary

Despite many parents hoping the opposite, young children can understand and identify poor excuses or parents who use the phrase “I told you so” at an early age. Leon Li advised that this study shows that “kids are paying attention and can tell that is a lame reason.”

In summary, as adults, we need to recognize that young children’s standards, rules, and morality skills develop from a young age than previously thought and that trying to justify a broken promise with a lousy excuse is a bad idea and will impact our children long term.


My Mind News would be interested to hear what ‘white’ lies or lame excuses you have used and, if you have, then subsequently be called out by your child.

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