Let's face it. Everybody lies. Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it. I know you're doing it as well from time to time. But as parents, ave you ever wondered what is the best way to teach children to stop lying? If so, read on.

Here’s something that happened in our house the other day.

I was in the kitchen, clearing the dishwasher. My wife was washing our baby daughter and our son (he’s the oldest) was watching TV. All of a sudden I heard a bang and the sound of plastic hitting the floor. I rushed to the living room to find my son looking at me with a combination of a smile and a guilty face. His glass was on the ground, alongside a small pool of water.

“What happened?”, I asked.

“Nothing, the glass just fell”, said he.

Oh really? I thought to myself. I know that he probably jumped on the sofa – something that he knows he’s not supposed to – and fell down (if you read my about page, you know this is a recurring theme for him). At first, I was actually relieved that he didn't get hurt and nothing broke but I was angry that he lied.

“Look, I heard you fell down and I see the pillow that you held and knocked the glass down. So, again, what happened?”

Again, he looked at me with big eyes, hoping I’ll leave him alone before he confesses to jumping on the sofa.

“No, really nothing!” he said, and I felt my anger rise.

Sounds familiar?

Every parent has different views about how he or she wants their kids to behave, But there are some areas were we tend to have similar opinions. One of those is that we want our kids to tell us the truth. We try to teach them to stop lying, at least to us and to their teachers. We tell them stories of growing noses and burning pants and what not. Sometimes we punish, sometimes not. But what works?

Can stories teach children to stop lying?

We all know them. I referred to them in the previous paragraph. Educational stories are short or long stories that try to convey at least one educational message to our kids. We believe that they’ll learn better if we tell them about some kid or animal who did this and that, instead of just preaching to them.

I think that the best known story about lying is that of Pinocchio, the wooden-puppet that transformed to a real boy whose nose grew whenever he lied. But, other than enjoying the story itself, can it teach children to stop lying?

Let’s look at one study from the scientific journal Psychological Science that tried to answer that question.

Children aged 3 to 7 arrived at the lab. They were invited to a room where they played a game. The experimenter activated one of two toys that were placed on a table behind the child, who had to guess what toy it is. For example, if the child heard a bark she was supposed to say it was the toy puppy.

Then, the experimenter said he forgot to bring a book he wanted to read the child and left the room. Before leaving the room, he placed a new toy on the table and asked the child not to peek.

When the experimenter came back, he read one of four stories to the child:

  • Pinocchio – you know that one. Let’s just notice that it emphasized both that it’s wrong to lie and the punishment (longer nose).
  • The boy who cried wolf – this is the story about the sheep-herding boy who lied time and again about a wolf, until eventually nobody believed him when a real wolf came and ate his sheep. Notice that again – it emphasized both that it’s wrong to lie and the punishment (dead sheep).
  • George Washington and the Cherry Tree – this classic story tells of the boy George Washington who received an axe as a gift from his dad. Dunno why, things were different in the 18th century. Anyway, Georgey cut down the cherry tree – although he wasn’t supposed to. When his father asked him if he did it, little George said that he couldn’t lie and confessed. The father was so proud that he forgave him about the tree.
    This is the odd story. Where the other two emphasized how wrong it is to lie, this one emphasized how good it is to tell the truth.
  • The Tortoise and the Hare – this classic story is not about lying at all and it’s here as a control group.

So, after reading the story to the child, the experimenter asked “Is it OK to lie?”. Then the child answered whatever and the experimenter said something like “I don’t want you to be like Pinocchio, so tell me the truth. Did you peek on that toy?” (or, “I want you to be like Washington and tell me the truth”).

The question is how many kids lied in each group (said they didn’t peek when they did).

Drum Roll…

The kids in the Washington group lied less. Profoundly less. In an interesting fashion, the kids in all the other groups – including the Tortoise and the Hare group – lied in the same amount. You can see that in the following image from the article.


how to teach kids to stop lying graph

Positive message works best

So why did the Washington story worked better in making the children tell the truth?

As I mentioned you before, there’s a fundamental difference between the Washington story and the other two. While both Pinocchio and The Boy who Cried Wolf emphasized the wrongness of lying, Washington and the Cherry Tree emphasized the goodness of telling the truth.

The researchers figured out that this may be the reason for the results, so they checked that in another study.

They wrote a new Washington story, but in this one the emphasis is on the consequences of lying (George lies and his father confiscates the axe). Then they did the same experiment.

The results were profound. The new Washington story didn’t stop the kids from lying. Those who heard it lied as much as the ones who heard Pinocchio or The Boy who Cried Wolf. And again, those who heard the original Washington story lied less.

This affirmed the conclusion that it’s the positive angle of the Washington story that did the trick.


cherry tree

Let’s conclude

The take home message from this post is one that I truly believe and try to live by, and I think it’s really important.

We as parent must put an emphasis on what’s right, and not only on what’s wrong.

In the day-to-day struggles and challenges we tend to forget that. We tend to notice when our kids misbehave and tell them off or punish them. But when the act nicely – telling the truth for example – we tend to move on. Actually, I think that only babies tend to get praise on good things that they do (“Look at you smiling!”).

And that’s a shame. This research (and others) show us that reinforcing good behavior is powerful, even more than punishing bad behavior.

So let’s try and remember that. The next time your kid does something right, such as telling you the truth, don’t act as if it obvious that he does that. Reinforce that. Let him know that you appreciate him for doing that and that you expect more of that. You don’t have to go over the top and feign over-excitement, just be yourselves, smile to him or her and say something like “You know, I’m really happy you told me the truth, I know that you could’ve lied in order to avoid anger or punishment, and I really appreciate that you didn’t”.

Try that. You’ll both benefit from it.

So, what do you think? Do you happen reinforce the positive on your daily communications with your kids? How else do you react when they lie? Share with us on the comments below.

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