The Whole Truth From Five-Year-Olds

ompetency tasks. Ranging from 4 to 7 years old, all of the children - who had allegedly been maltreated - had been removed from their parents.

While the child development literature is rife with studies about children's understanding of truth and lies, nobody had ever examined the understanding of these concepts among maltreated children - much less the children who end up in dependency court. Neither had anybody ever looked at approaches to determining competency being used by actual attorneys.

Despite serious delays in language development, most of the 5-year-olds in the study, correctly identified truthful statements and lies as such and recognized that lying is bad and would make authority figures mad.

"It's not unusual for defense attorneys to demand competency tests for children as old as 10, and a recent poll found that judges believe that 7 is the youngest age at which most children are competent," Lyon says. "Our findings clearly show that children can be trusted much earlier than commonly thought to understand what they're promising when they swear to tell the truth in a court of law."

Of the children in the study who clearly exhibited an understanding of the difference between the truth and lie, 69% failed adequately to explain the difference between the concepts, and 61% failed to adequately define either telling the truth or telling a lie.

"This means conventional approaches to evaluating children as witnesses in abuse and neglect cases may be needlessly disqualifying up to 70% of children," Lyon says.

In fact, very few children younger than 7 (8% of 4-year-olds to 17% of 6-year-olds) were able to provide a minimally sufficient description of the difference between truth and lies, and only about half (46%) of the 7-year-olds were able to do so.

"We expected to find that children perform better on an identification task than on tasks that involve defining words or explaining the difference between concepts, but we were reall

Contact: Meg Sullivan
University of Southern California

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