A couple of weeks ago, I read an article in the New York Times, “Is Your Child Lying to You? That’s Good.” Two sentences into the article, I started grousing about scientists spending gazillions of our hard-earned tax dollars to prove what I, and probably most parents know intuitively: given the opportunity, KIDS LIE! Even my golden, can-do-no-wrong grandchildren lie.
But here’s a newsworthy nugget scientists confirmed in their infinite number of studies that I didn’t know: the better the liar, the smarter the kid.
My husband and I have five children and eleven grandchildren so we’re practically lying experts. And some of the funniest lies, the ones I call the BIG WHOPPERS, were the long, detailed stories recited by our granddaughter who’s a fraternal twin. In my book, when a story/lie floats in the Harry Potter/J. K. Rowling league, it’s not a lie, it’s entertainment. Twin granddaughter’s fabrications made my writer’s heart giddy—her parents, not so much.
I appreciated her stories of scaling a fifty-foot pine tree to save the neighbor’s kitten and beating up the bully who pushed her best friend on the playground. It didn’t matter to me if her tales were true; she had a heroine’s heart and the imagination of a writer.
Then there’s the other kind of lie, the not-for-entertainment lie, like the time another granddaughter, Lil’ Darling, decided the amount of money her mom provided for a school book fair didn’t seem quite enough. At dinner, she remembered a sudden need for a few extra bucks for a “school project.” It took less than forty-eight hours for guilt to worm through Lil’ Darling’s heart. She woke her mother at 2:00 a.m., crying hysterically and admitted she’d lied about needing money for her “school project” and she just wanted three books from the fair instead of two. Mom judged from the come-clean-cry-fest Lil’ Darling’s mental-prison-of-guilt was enough punishment for the fib. But the next morning at breakfast, Big Sis objected with blustering force, claiming if she’d been the one caught lying she would’ve been grounded for a month. Big Sis was likely practicing for her future career as a grandstanding courtroom attorney, and believe me, I wouldn’t want to be her opposing counsel. Mom didn’t deny her future litigator’s accusation; she merely stated, “different child, different punishment.” I’ve always loved that line and wished I’d had it in my mom-comeback toolbox.
But so far, our daughter, the marriage and family therapist whose life motto is “Go Big Or Go Home,” created the family’s all-time-big-whopper. In our family, science and sports receive equal measure, and we celebrate both with hearty gusto. If you’re a star football player, or track runner, or all-county diver, we throw a big family shindig. Win a blue ribbon at the county science fair, and you’re awarded the same accolade.
In grade school, the future therapist competed in our county science fairs. Her projects consumed our Saturdays for months, and she always brought home a blue ribbon.
But in sixth grade, the therapist decided to include her horse in her project, investigating the correlation between equine exercise and water, or something along those lines. Live animals in sixth-grade projects were frowned upon, but with four blue ribbons under her belt, her science teacher made an exception.
A few months later, I ran into one of my friends at the grocery store who knew of my daughter’s scientific prowess. Apparently, I hadn’t checked the school calendar recently because my friend asked if the therapist would be attending the science fair the following day.
Since the therapist hadn’t ridden her horse in over three months, a basic requirement for her project, I was pretty sure something smelled in the land of lies and science—and it wasn’t the horse manure that I’d been mucking out of her gelding’s stall. I called for an immediate teacher conference and swung by the school. My conversation with the science teacher went something like this.
“I wanted to discuss the upcoming science fair,” I said.
The teacher pursed her lips. “I was so disappointed when your daughter decided not to participate this year. Her project is stellar and meets every criterion for a blue ribbon. I think she has a shot at winning the entire sixth grade. And she’s spent so many hours working on her data. All her hard work really shows.”
“I hate to bust your bubble, but her hard work amounted to a lot of imagination, and maybe a lot of punching numbers on a calculator.”
Teacher’s eyes squinted into razor-thin slits. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying, she made it all up.”
Teacher’s shoulders sagged, she dropped her head. Yep, I’d just ruined her vision of winning educator-of-the-year.
I didn’t commute the therapist’s punishment as time served because it didn’t appear she spent any time at all in the mental-jail-of-guilt. For months she’d ambled along being her perky, happy-go-lucky self. Not riding her horse. Making up data. No sudden pangs of guilt or middle of the night heart-to-hearts or come-clean talks for her.
So I called my daughter out. Then made her fess up to her favorite teacher, chuck the fake paper, conduct a real experiment, and accept a reduced grade for turning in late work. And I grounded her for a month. The difference in the therapist’s punishment versus Lil’ Darling’s was simple. The therapist lied to steal. Other kids in her class worked hard to make an A—my daughter was willing to steal her A. My punishment, I thought at the time, fit the crime.
But here’s the thing. I wasn’t surprised or crestfallen over my daughter’s big fat lie, and in some far, far, very far corner of my mind, actually a little impressed. I always knew kids lied. I lied, and even though my mother would swear different, I’m pretty sure my brother lied, too. But no matter, I was absolutely sure my daughter had to be punished.
But according to the Times article, I’d have been better off reminding her of the simple story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree by reminding her of the honor of telling the truth. The article claims that research has shown that the George Washington story gets far more mileage with young minds than all my admonishing. And for even littler ones, it turns out reciting to them the story of Pinocchio or The Boy Who Cried Wolf doesn’t work either.
Scientists proved punishment makes our kids sneakier and more accomplished liars. There’s only one thing parents can do to make any significant difference: positive reinforcement for the behavior you want to see happen. Pointing out people who make a mistake like lying and then showing them owning up to the deed as a trustworthy and honorable choice is the better approach.
And, the psychologists also warned, no matter how righteous it might have felt for me to set my daughter up by asking her when she planned to start her science project—I shouldn’t have.
I kind of balked at that one, but when I started thinking about it, for me to ask, pretending I didn’t know she’d turned in a fake paper was another form of lying.
In the future, if my grandchild is smart enough to imagine an exciting narrative, I’ll reward them, then remind my brilliant, little, lying munchkin the story of George and his tree. After all, they might be practicing to be a grandstanding lawyer, a famous NYT best-selling writer, or a family therapist.
What was the biggest whopper your perfect bambinos tried to slide by you?