The Science of Kids
Friday, August 28, 2009
By Wray Herbert
Nick is a 6-year-old boy who doesn’t lie. At least according to his father, Steve. So imagine Steve’s chagrin when he witnessed what a hidden camera had documented in the McGill University laboratory of psychologist Victoria Talwar. In order to win a prize, Nick readily cheated in a game, then lied to cover up his cheating. When pressed, he elaborated on his lie, and he showed not a glimmer of remorse. Indeed, he was gleeful.
Is Nick a “young sociopath in the making?” Probably not. In fact, he’s fairly typical of 6-year-olds, who lie about once an hour, usually to cover up a transgression of some kind. That’s about twice as much lying as 4-year-olds do, which suggests that kids are learning to lie. Looking at kids of all ages, fully 96 percent are liars. Indeed, Talwar views lying as an important developmental milestone, linked to intelligence.
That doesn’t mean lying is okay, and both father and son know this. It’s uncomfortable to watch Nick squirm through his lies as he digs himself in deeper. And Steve is a fairly typical parent too, in the sense that all parents are very bad at lie detection. What’s more, Nick likely learned to lie from watching his parents tell white lies. Parents typically view precocious lying as innocent, something that will correct itself; but in fact a lot of kids get “hooked” on lying very early.
Nick’s story comes from science writers Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, who include it in NurtureShock, their delightful new collection of essays on the “science of kids.” Though not exactly a parenting manual, the book does offer a lot of useful information on why kids do what they do. For example, Talwar and her colleagues have tried using stories to teach kids like Nick to curb their lying. In one study, they had kids listen to either "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" or "George Washington and the Cherry Tree"; they heard the story after they had cheated, but before the psychologist asked them about cheating.
For those who don’t recall: In "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," the shepherd boy lies repeatedly about a wolf, and in the end is eaten by a wolf when nobody believes his calls for help. So it’s about severe punishment for lying. George Washington, by contrast, tells his father the truth about chopping down the tree, and is forgiven and praised for his truthfulness. When Bronson and Merryman conducted a survey, three of four respondents said the wolf story would be the more effective teaching tool, but in fact it was the opposite. The honest George tale cut lying by 75 percent in boys, and 50 percent in girls.
Why? Probably because kids already know that lying is a punishable offense; they’re not learning anything new there. What’s new—and welcome information—is that honesty might bring them both immunity from punishment and parental praise.
Bronson and Merryman’s essay on lying is representative of this engaging volume, in its mix of pitch-perfect science writing and soft-pedaled guidance for parents. Many of their essays—on sleep, racial attitudes, self-control, sibling relations, and more—are animated by actual flesh-and-blood kids, who we meet on an excursion through many of the nation’s top child psychology laboratories. It’s a rewarding and entertaining excursion. NurtureShock is published by Twelve Books, and is in bookstores now.
For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit the “Full Frontal Psychology” blog at True/Slant. Selections from “We’re Only Human” appear regularly at Newsweek.com and in the magazine Scientific American Mind.
posted by Wray Herbert @ 11:37 AM