Friday, March 23, 2012

Parenting Tips: The Tales We Tell To Prevent Lying

by Deborah Pace Rowley

Recently I read the book Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. I loved this book and would highly recommend it. I will be including some of the ideas I learned from my reading in future posts. Today’s parenting tip has to do with teaching our kids to be honest. Nurture Shock includes a chapter entitled “Why Kids Lie.” In the beginning of the chapter, the authors explain that children first begin lying to avoid punishment. Nothing earth-shattering there. Every parent knows that. What surprised me was the research about the ineffectiveness of our efforts to teach our kids not to lie. What is the most commonly used story to encourage honesty? If you said, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, you would be right. We often tell our kids this story about the boy who gets eaten by a wolf because of his repeated lies. But this story actually INCREASES lying in the children who hear the story. Why? Because the story focuses on punishment; in this case, the ultimate punishment of death.  “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.” (pgs 84-85)
If we shouldn’t tell our children the story about The Boy Who Cried Wolf, what stories can we tell our children? According to the research presented in the book, the story George Washington and the Cherry Tree reduced lying a whopping 75% in boys and 50% in girls. Why is that? It isn’t because George Washington is a national hero and cultural icon. This story worked just as well in foreign children who had never heard George Washington’s name.
The effectiveness of this story relates to the second reason children lie. Children lie to make parent’s happy. They innocently assume that parents want good news and not the truth. So the best thing to say to young children when they are caught lying is, “I will not be upset with you if you lied, and if you tell the truth, I will be really happy.” That takes away both their motivations to lie: avoiding punishment and pleasing you. This is why George Washington and the Cherry Tree is so effective. “Little George received both immunity and praise for telling the truth…Parents need to teach kids the worth of honesty just as much as they need to say that lying is wrong” (page 86). The more we can emphasize the rewards of honesty in the stories we tell our children, the more effective our teaching will be. Isn’t that powerful? I only wish I had known that a little sooner.  

Click HERE to download a copy of one version of the story 
George Washington and the Cherry Tree

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