Alex Stone startled in a recent New York Times op-ed, “Is Your Child Lying to You? That’s Good.” Stone, author of Fooling Houdini, tempts readers to abandon that plodding parental desire to raise honest children with this irresistible bait: liars are smarter. “We believe honesty is a moral imperative, and we try to instill this belief in our children,” Stone opens. He identifies this as a mistake, undervaluing both the act of fibbing and its power as predictor of cleverness: “Lying is not only normal; it’s also a sign of intelligence.” Overturning hidebound preference honesty is “research.” Through experiments telling young children not to peek at a hidden toy, then asking them to self-report, observers discovered that at least 80% of four-year-olds could lie convincingly. Adults, even parents, sometimes had trouble distinguishing liars from truth-tellers. This research suggests not only that lying is common among young children but that it can be read as a good sign. Kids who disobeyed and lied about it were measured as smarter than the ones who did not lie. Smart in ways that play like music to the ears of parents now: their verbal IQ scores were higher, their executive functioning skills were superior, and they even seemed more open to others’ points of view. Parents whose preschoolers disappoint with ox-like honesty can jumpstart these late-bloomers by instruction through (what else?) games that “can turn truth-tellers into liars within weeks.”
Parents unwilling to give up dreams of honesty for their children can cultivate that too. Getting kids to make some sort of promise, like signing an honor code, seems to trip self-policing mechanisms even if kids do not understand them. Kids can be paid off for telling the truth, the lowest effective “honesty-to-dishonesty exchange rate” hovering around 150%. Carrots work better than sticks, Stone concludes. Kids who know to tell the truth at $3 instead of lying at $2 are to be praised as rational calculators. They have figured out the best policy. After all, as Stone assesses parental desire, what we want is for “our children to be clever enough to lie but morally disinclined to do so.”
Stone may be right in that assessment: what is wanted in honesty is not inability to lie but the choice not to. But Stone’s larger argument is wrong. Actually parents should be unhappy if their children are lying. Parents are reasonable in wanting little Dick and Jane to be honest, not because incentives make honesty more rewarding but because truth-telling is good in itself and shapes the kind of person that boy or girl is and will be.
Stone’s contrarian title is effective at getting readers’ attention. But the insidious part is his baiting of the hook, because many readers of this newspaper want what’s on that hook so badly. We want our kids to be smart. We may weight different strains of that quality differently, one family valuing creativity over calculation, another grooming engineers over wordsmiths, but intelligence is prized.
Many of Stone’s conclusions are neatly wrong, the tidy opposite of what should be. To get underneath what disturbs about his transvaluation, it might be useful to confess several peeves often provoked by current advice about childrearing:
- The measuring of something ordinarily treated in approximately moral terms with social-science research. This research may purport to be reliable in its scientific method, as though the only way to find out truth about something is to approach it as though “truth” were a category of human convention. The approach can hardly avoid irony in this instance.
- The announcement that carrots work better than sticks. This is presented as though a surprise, even as floodtides of American popular parenting advice have announced just that over and over again, and even as disciplinary fashions have ruled out most sticks formerly warehoused with carrots.
- The staging of instruction as play. Can’t anything be taught without a game? Even lying?
- The concession that parents may keep some quirky uptight preferences for virtue as long as a function can be found for them and they can be inculcated through incentives.
At end it is relatively easy to agree that, Stone notwithstanding, we do not think it desirable or indifferent that children lie. That part is easy. The really troubling feature of Stone’s argument is not the kids’ behavior but the inclination of the parents, the readers–us. Simultaneously Stone’s piece makes all relative, truth just a preference for teachable disinclination to lie, and stokes fires burning before the absolute to which we can’t help but bow: intelligence.
Yet there is a case to be made, still, for being wise as serpents and harmless as doves. This potential can be found even within Stone’s article. Buried under the list of traits showing that lying children demonstrate intelligence outstripping that of kids who peeked and told, is this bright bit, quoted here in Stone’s own parentheses: “(Children who don’t peek at the toy in the first place are the smartest of all, but they are a rarity.)”.
How is that for hope? And hope does not disappoint.