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. Talwar did a version of the peeking game in western Africa, with children who attend a traditional colonial school. In this school, Talwar described, "The teachers would slap the children's heads, hit them with switches, pinch them, for anything — forgetting a pencil, getting homework wrong. Sometimes, a good child would be made to enforce the bad kid." While the North American kids usually peek within five seconds, "Children in this school took longer to peek — 35 seconds, even 58 seconds. But just as many peeked. Then they lied and continued to lie. They go for broke because of the severe consequences of getting caught." Even three-year-olds pretended they didn't know what the toy was, though they'd just peeked. They understood that naming the toy was to drop a clue, and the temptation of being right didn't outweigh the risk of being caught. They were able to completely control their verbal leakage — an ability that still eluded six-year-old Nick.
But just removing the threat of punishment is not enough to extract honesty from kids. In yet another variation, Talwar's researchers promise the children, "I will not be upset with you if you peeked. It doesn't matter if you did." Parents try a version of this routinely. But this alone doesn't reduce lying at all. The children are still wary; they don't trust the promise of immunity. They're thinking, "My parent really wishes I didn't do it in the first place; if I say I didn't, that's my best chance of making my parent happy."
Meaning, in these decisive moments, they want to know how to get back into your good graces. So it's not enough to say to a six-year old, "I will not be upset with you if you peeked, and if you tell the truth you'll be really happy with yourself." That does reduce lying — quite a bit — but a six-year- old doesn't want to make himself happy. He wants to make the parent happy.
What really works is to tell the child, "I will not be upset with you if you peeked, and if you tell the truth, I will be really happy." This is an offer of both immunity and a clear route back to good standing. Talwar explained this latest finding: "Young kids are lying to make you happy — trying to please you." So telling kids that the truth will make a parent happy challenges the kid's original thought that hearing good news — not the truth — is what will please the parent.
That's why George Washington and the Cherry Tree works so well. Little George receives both immunity and praise for telling the truth.
Ultimately, it's not fairy tales that stop kids from lying — it's the process of socialization. But the wisdom in The Cherry Tree applies: according to Talwar, parents need to teach kids the worth of honesty just as much as they need to say that lying is wrong. The more kids hear that message, the more quickly they will take this lesson to heart.