Recent Lab Publication on African American Mothers’ Messages about Honesty toward Their children

Our lab is fortunate to have opportunities to collaborate with excellent colleagues who are invested in development and family science. One such collaboration was brought about by colleagues in the University of Missouri’s Human Development and Family Science Department, including Jean Ispa, Gus Carlo, and a group a grad students with expertise on the systems and relationships that help inform functioning in families. As part of a larger project studying families who participated in Project Head Start, we considered conversations between African American mothers and older children (10-11-years-old), as families discussed the importance of honesty and challenges with lying.

Lying is a widespread and common problem for children, but is widely discouraged by caregivers and society at large. Yet, the kinds of messages used to discourage children’s lying and to encourage children’s honesty might differ given cultural upbringing and differences in parenting styles. Because much of the research to-date on these forms of parenting have studied middle income and European American families often, without as much focus on families representing different income backgrounds and/or ethnic backgrounds, there remains a need to consider the behaviors of families from more backgrounds. This was part of our motivation in considering African American families from Head Start, which serves families with pressing financial need. Further, African American mothers were interested in these opportunities to discuss honesty with their children–they often spontaneously selected this topic among a larger set of possible discussions to be held.

For this project, we looked at 1) the emotional tone mothers established in discussing the importance honesty and lying; 2) the kinds of communication styles they brought to the table in discussing with their children; and 3) the specific kinds of messages they shared during conversations. We broadly found that mothers shifted to a very firm and serious tone with children, but not an overly hostile or aggressive tone, compared to the conversational style before discussing honesty and lying. Mothers also used a mix of communication strategies that encouraged strict adherence to rules (ex. there is no room for harmless or white lies), as well as opportunities for children to explore their autonomy, discuss their views and reasoning, and offer suggestions on how to be more honest. Lastly, mothers shared specific messages about the dangers and risks of lying, possible burdens of lying for children as well as other caregivers (“It’s hard for me to have your back if I can’t trust what you’re saying”) and the importance of being honest for oneself (“The truth will set you free”).

This project has been an exciting opportunity to consider important aspects of parenting and morality among a group of parents and children who remain understudied in topics of family functioning and behavior. We look forward to additional opportunities to drive efforts to build a more representative and better informed field given ongoing looks at more families from more backgrounds. We thank our colleagues for the opportunity to contribute to this important work.

Read further:

Booker, J. A., Ispa, J. M., Im, J., Maiya, S., Roos, J., & Carlo, G. (2021). African American mothers talk to their preadolescents about honesty and lying. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 27(3), 521–530.