Throw two paper airplanes, and ask a young child which flew better. The child will be able to tell you.
Wait three months. Now, ask a parent to read the child a book that includes the event and something that never happened, such as the child being touched by the person who made the planes.
Many children will report the fiction as fact.
The younger the child, the more likely the fabrication will be recounted as real.
Such was the finding of a study of 114 children between the ages of 3 and 8 years old by two psychologists on how children can be manipulated by parents when reporting the “truth.”
The finding has implications for children who witness crimes or in custody cases, when parents might be providing inaccurate information to children, says Debra Anne Poole, professor of psychology at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, and co-author of the study.
“We knew that children can be influenced by false information when suggested by others than their parents,” says Poole. “We wanted to see to what extent the children could be influenced by their parents.”
Parents Believed More than ‘Mr. Science’
In the study, children interacted with a man called “Mr. Science” who showed them science demonstrations, such as pulley pulling, paper airplane construction and top spinning. The researchers interviewed the children to report what happened.
Three months later the researchers gave parents a book to read about the demonstrations, which also had fictional information about Mr. Science touching the children. Researchers found that 35 percent of the children reported fictitious events.
But older children, between 7 and 8, —, who were prompted to remember the source of information, such as either from the original incident or from the book — were better able to distinguish fact from fiction than the younger children.
The findings are in the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
Who Told the Child What?
“The results reinforce the concern of forensic experts about the difficulty children sometimes have in distinguishing real and suggested events, especially if they have been previously exposed to suggestions,” the researchers report.
To improve the reliability of older child witnesses in criminal cases, interviewers will have to be able to tease out whether a child has been exposed to several sources when reporting an event, including their own eyewitness experience, Poole says. Once outside sources can be distinguished for the child, he or she will be better able to provide an accurate rendition of what happened, Poole says.
Younger children, however, may not be able to distinguish between sources as they cannot distinguish yet between knowing and remembering, Poole says.