Parents of children who habitually lie can breathe a huge sigh of relief — The New York Times says that budding Pinocchios are more intelligent than kids who tell the truth (“Is Your Child Lying to You? That’s Good,” Alex Stone, Jan. 5, 2018). The Grey Lady’s announcement is based on studies done in the 1980s in which young children who disobeyed an instruction and then denied having disobeyed were discovered to have higher IQs than those who admitted disobedience. A subsequent study found that most adults cannot tell when children are lying, a finding that seems — on the surface, at least — to confirm the previous study.
The question, of course, becomes: Does perfecting the art of lying make a child smarter or does being smart lend itself to lying? Which comes first, dishonesty or a high IQ? Your author will not attempt to unravel that puzzle. I will, however, mention that people who habitually lie are known as sociopaths. As adults, a fair number of them spend time in prison for doing such things as embezzling from their employers or conning elderly people out of their life savings.
So, whereas the NYT sees it as good news that some children become inveterate liars at an early age, teaching a child to lie in the hopes he or she will become smarter as a result is not recommended. Unfortunately, today’s parenting culture seems to put a higher premium on a high IQ than it does morality. Consider that one regularly sees bumper stickers advertising children’s academic achievements — you know, that “My Child Is an Honor Student at Cutabove Academy” thing, but none that publicize children’s moral sturdiness, as in, “My Child May Not Be the Sharpest Knife in the Drawer, But She Is Polite and Hard-Working.” How many parents do you know who have enrolled their kids in after-school tutoring in manners? It would appear that a good number of today’s parents are more concerned with achievement than character.
The guilty parties would never admit it, of course. If asked, “Given the choice, would you rather that your child make straight A’s or always tell the truth and strive to never hurt another person’s feelings?” they will lie. Which is sociopathic. Which may go a long way toward explaining why some straight-A kids are incorrigible liars, or vice versa.
The New York Times piece also mentions research finding that punishment does not deter, much less rehabilitate, most childhood liars. That’s consistent with my experience. The thrill of getting away with a lie seems to greatly outweigh any possibility of negative consequences. The same researchers recommend what they term positive messaging — emphasizing the benefits of honesty rather than threatening punishment. That certainly won’t hurt, but I’m skeptical of its long-term value.
Not surprisingly, money “talks” to the aspiring sociopath, says the NYT. When compensated sufficiently, young liars will tell the truth. That fails to justify the immorality of paying for morality. Another way of saying the same thing: Paying a sociopath to not behave like a sociopath is sociopathic. Furthermore, the researchers in question failed to say that paying for honesty brought about permanent transformation; therefore, it is safe to say it did not.
What does? Well, I don’t think any one solution fits all kids, but here’s an interesting story: Two parents once told me they successfully fought fire with fire. They began lying about everything and anything — what was for dinner, what movie they were going to, that they were going to raise his allowance — to their nine-year-old aspiring sociopath. No morality lectures, mind you, simply lie after lie after lie. This went on for several weeks before he “got it” and begged them to stop. They did, promising more of the same if he relapsed. He’s been lie-free for three years now.
Your great-grandparents called it “reverse psychology.” They were right about most things parenting.
Family psychologist John Rosemond: johnrosemond.com, parentguru.com.