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Out of the mouths of babes: how do children understand and answer questions?

Dr Deirdre Brown. Credit: Robert Cross, Victoria University of Wellington

Dr Deirdre Brown of Victoria University of Wellington will examine the best approaches to question children in criminal and welfare investigations

Published 2 November 2017

From a young age, children learn that they are expected to answer adults’ questions. When children are interviewed about past events, they rarely say when they do not understand a question, or are unsure about an answer. Instead, children will often try to comply by answering in unexpected and sometimes inaccurate ways. In some contexts, such behaviour can have serious ramifications, for instance when police officers or social workers interview children about possible maltreatment.

To help children in such settings, interviewers often teach them ‘ground rules’. For example, children are asked to say, “I don’t know”, “I don’t understand”, or “that’s not right” when needed. However, we don’t know how well children of different ages understand these ground rules, what impact these rules have on their behaviour, or how best to teach them.

Dr Deirdre Brown of Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Psychology has received a Marsden Fund grant to examine how children understand interview ground rules at different ages, and to determine the most effective teaching method. The findings from this project will help adults prepare children to answer questions about their experiences, and ensure we gain better, more accurate information when making decisions about children's well-being.