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 and in the magazine Scientific American Mind.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 11:37 AM


At 1:06 PM , Blogger Nevine said...

I can see how the results of tests would indicate that the GW story is more effective. I had a classroom experience where I heard a student use a profanity. Naturally, I asked him to step outside the classroom with me, and I asked him, "Did you just say what I though I heard you say. He said, "Yes." First off, I thanked him for telling the truth. Then, I told him to take five minutes and think of one good reason why he had cussed in class. If he could come up with a convincing reason, I wouldn't report it, plus I explained that he already had the fact that he had told the truth working to his advantage. He told me that he had cussed because he had cussed once before to the girl sitting by him and he'd finally gotten her to pay him attention; apparently, he'd been trying all year. I told him that I understood why he'd done that, but that didn't make it okay. I didn't send him to the office, and he stayed out of trouble for the remainder of the school year. It was like I'd hit two birds with one stone: I allowed him to explain himself, respected his explanation, and rewarded him for being truthful. It's a great strategy, and it works every time I use it!

At 1:08 AM , Blogger sandy,phd said...

Thanks for the review. I want to read more. Parenting is so tricky.

I definately agree with the advice to praise for honesty. I try to use it as often as possible with my own and I think it's been helpful in garnering more communication in general.

As for the lying, I'd like to know at what age, roughly, the lying should taper off, and how to tell when the lying starts heading into the "hooked" end of the spectrum. Compulsive lying is such a destructive personality trait.