Why Kids Lie Ⅳ - Woodmam

In Talwar’s peeking game, sometimes the researcher pauses the game with, “I’m about to ask you a question. But before I do that, will you promise to tell the truth?” (Yes, the child answers.) “Okay, did you peek at the toy when I was out of the room?” This promise cuts down lying by 25%.

In other scenarios, Talwar’s researcher will read the child a short storybook before she asks about the peeking. One of the stories read aloud is The Boy Who Cried Wolf—the version in which both the boy and the sheep get eaten because of his repeated lies. Alternatively, they read the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree, in which young George confesses to his father that he chopped down the prized tree with his new hatchet. The story ends with his father’s reply: “George, I’m glad that you cut down that cherry tree after all. Hearing you tell the truth is better than if I had a thousand cherry trees.”

Now if you had to guess, which story would you think reduced lying more? We ran a poll on our web site, receiving over a thousand responses to that question. Of them, 75% said The Boy Who Cried Wolf would work better. However, this famous fable, told all around the world, actually did not cut down lying at all in Talwar’s experiments. In fact, after hearing the story, kids lied even a little more than usual.

Meanwhile, hearing George Washington and the Cherry Tree reduced lying a whopping 75% in boys, and 50% in girls.

We might think that the story works because Washington’s a national icon—that kids are taught to emulate the honesty of our nation’s founder—but Talwar’s kids are Canadian, and the youngest kids have never even heard of him. To determine if Washington’s celebrity was an influential factor for the older kids, Talwar re-ran the experiment, replacing Washington with a nondescript character, and otherwise leaving the story intact. The story’s generic version had the same result.

Why does one fable work so well, while the other doesn’t—and what does this tell us about how to teach kids to lie less?

The shepherd boy ends up suffering the ultimate punishment, but that lies get punished is not news to children. When asked if lies are always wrong, 92% of five-year-olds say yes. And when asked why lies are wrong, most say the problem with lying is you get punished for it. In that sense, young kids process the risk of lying by considering only their own self-protection. It takes years for the children to understand lying on a more sophisticated moral ground. It isn’t until age eleven that the majority demonstrate awareness of its harm to others; at that point, 48% say the problem with lying is that it destroys trust, and 22% say it carries guilt. Even then, a third still say the problem with lying is being punished.

As an example of how strongly young kids associate lying with punishment, consider this: 38% of five-year-olds rate profanity as a lie. Why would kids think swearing is a lie? It’s because in their minds, lies are the things you say that get you punished or admonished. Swearing gets you admonished. Therefore, swearing is a lie.

Increasing the threat of punishment for lying only makes children hyperaware of the potential personal cost. It distracts the child from learning how his lies impact others. In studies, scholars find that kids who live in threat of consistent punishment don’t lie less. Instead, they become better liars, at an earlier age—learning to get caught less often. Talwar did a version of the peeking game in western Africa, with children who attend a traditional colonial school. In this school, Talwar described, “The teachers would slap the children’s heads, hit them with switches, pinch them, for anything—forgetting a pencil, getting homework wrong. Sometimes, a good child would be made to enforce the bad kid.” While the North American kids usually peek within five seconds, “Children in this school took longer to peek—35 seconds, even 58 seconds. But just as many peeked. Then they lied and continued to lie. They go for broke because of the severe consequences of getting caught.” Even three-year-olds pretended they didn’t know what the toy was, though they’d just peeked. They understood that naming the toy was to drop a clue, and the temptation of being right didn’t outweigh the risk of being caught. They were able to completely control their verbal leakage—an ability that still eluded six-year-old Nick.

But just removing the threat of punishment is not enough to extract honesty from kids. In yet another variation, Talwar’s researchers promise the children, “I will not be upset with you if you peeked. It doesn’t matter if you did.” Parents try a version of this routinely. But this alone doesn’t reduce lying at all. The children are still wary; they don’t trust the promise of immunity. They’re thinking, “My parent really wishes I didn’t do it in the first place; if I say I didn’t, that’s my best chance of making my parent happy.”

Meaning, in these decisive moments, they want to know how to get back into your good graces. So it’s not enough to say to a six-year-old, “I will not be upset with you if you peeked, and if you tell the truth you’ll be really happy with yourself.” That does reduce lying—quite a bit—but a six-year-old doesn’t want to make himself happy. He wants to make the parent happy.

What really works is to tell the child, “I will not be upset with you if you peeked, and if you tell the truth, I will be really happy.” This is an offer of both immunity and a clear route back to good standing. Talwar explained this latest finding: “Young kids are lying to make you happy—trying to please you.” So telling kids that the truth will make a parent happy challenges the kid’s original thought that hearing good news—not the truth—is what will please the parent.

That’s why George Washington and the Cherry Tree works so well. Little George receives both immunity and praise for telling the truth.

Ultimately, it’s not fairy tales that stop kids from lying—it’s the process of socialization. But the wisdom in The Cherry Tree applies: according to Talwar, parents need to teach kids the worth of honesty just as much as they need to say that lying is wrong. The more kids hear that message, the more quickly they will take this lesson to heart.


The other reason children lie, according to Talwar, is that they learn it from us.

Talwar challenged that parents need to really consider the importance of honesty in their own lives. Too often, she finds, parents’ own actions show kids an ad hoc appreciation of honesty. “We don’t explicitly tell them to lie, but they see us do it. They see us tell the telemarketer, ‘I’m just a guest here.’ They see us boast and lie to smooth social relationships.”

Consider how we expect a child to act when he opens a gift he doesn’t like. We expect him to swallow all his honest reactions—anger, disappointment, frustration—and put on a polite smile. Talwar runs an experiment where children play various games to win a present, but when they finally receive the present, it’s a lousy bar of soap. After giving the kids a moment to overcome the shock, a researcher asks them how they like it. Talwar is testing their ability to offer a white lie, verbally, and also to control the disappointment in their body language. About a quarter of preschoolers can lie that they like the gift—by elementary school, about half. Telling this lie makes them extremely uncomfortable, especially when pressed to offer a few reasons for why they like the bar of soap. They frown; they stare at the soap and can’t bring themselves to look the researcher in the eye. Kids who shouted with glee when they won the peeking game suddenly mumble quietly and fidget.

Meanwhile, the child’s parent is watching. They almost cheer when the child comes up with the white lie. “Often the parents are proud that their kids are ‘polite’—they don’t see it as lying,” Talwar remarked. Despite the number of times she’s seen it happen, she’s regularly amazed at parents’ apparent inability to recognize that a white lie is still a lie.

When adults are asked to keep diaries of their own lies, they admit to about one lie per every five social interactions, which works out to about one per day, on average. (College students are double that.) The vast majority of these lies are white lies meant to make others feel good, like telling the woman at work who brought in muffins that they taste great.

Encouraged to tell so many white lies, children gradually get comfortable with being disingenuous. Insincerity becomes, literally, a daily occurrence. They learn that honesty only creates conflict, while dishonesty is an easy way to avoid conflict. And while they don’t confuse white-lie situations with lying to cover their misdeeds, they bring this emotional groundwork from one circumstance to the other. It becomes easier, psychologically, to lie to a parent. So if the parent says, “Where did you get these Pokémon cards?! I told you, you’re not allowed to waste your allowance on Pokémon cards!,” this may feel to the child very much like a white-lie scenario—he can make his father feel better by telling him the cards were extras from a friend.

Now, compare this to the way children are taught not to tattle. Children will actually start tattling even before they can talk—at around the age of fourteen months, they’ll cry, point, and use their gaze to signal their mother for help when another child has stolen a toy or cookie. Appealing to grownups becomes a habit, and around the age of four, children start to hear a rule to rid them of this habit: “Don’t Tell,” or “Don’t Tattle.”

What grownups really mean by “Don’t Tell” is we want children to learn to work it out with one another, first. Kids need the social skills to resolve problems, and they won’t develop these skills if a parent always intrudes. Kids’ tattles are, occasionally, outright lies, and children can use tattling as a way to get even. When parents preach “Don’t Tell,” we’re trying to get all these power games to stop.

Preschool and elementary school teachers proclaim tattling to be the bane of their existence. One of the largest teachers’ training programs in the United States ranks children’s tattling as one of the top five classroom concerns—as disruptive as fighting or biting another classmate.

But tattling has received some scientific interest, and researchers have spent hours observing kids at play. They’ve learned that nine out of ten times a kid runs up to a parent to tell, that kid is being completely honest. And while it might seem to a parent that tattling is incessant, to a child that’s not the case—because for every one time a child seeks a parent for help, there were fourteen other instances when he was wronged and did not run to the parent for aid.

When the child—who’s put up with as much as he can handle—finally comes to tell the parent the honest truth, he hears, in effect, “Stop bringing me your problems!” According to one researcher’s work, parents are ten times more likely to chastise a child for tattling than they are to chide a child who lied.

Kids pick up on the power of “Don’t Tell” and learn they can silence one another with it. By the middle years of elementary school, being labeled a tattler is about the worst thing a kid can be called on the playground. So a child considering reporting a problem to an adult not only faces peer condemnation as a traitor and the schoolyard equivalent of the death penalty—ostracism—but he also recalls every time he’s heard teachers and parents say, “Work it out on your own.”

Each year, the problems kids deal with become exponentially bigger. They watch other kids vandalize walls, shoplift, cut class, and climb fences into places they shouldn’t be. To tattle about any of it is to act like a little kid, mortifying to any self-respecting tweener. Keeping their mouth shut is easy; they’ve been encouraged to do so since they were little.

The era of holding information back from parents has begun.

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