Two familiar stories: “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” and “George Washington and the Cherry Tree.” For argument’s sake, let’s take George Washington’s name out of the second story, because he’s so famous. In the first story the boy and his sheep are both eaten because of the boy’s persistent lies. In the second, the boy is praised for his honesty.
Which one of these stories would make a child less likely to lie? If you’re like most people (75%, in a recent survey), you would answer that “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” would be the more powerful motivation.
You would also be wrong. The virtue of honesty, rather than the threat of dire consequences, was by far the more powerful motivator. This is one of the conclusions of a study by Dr. Nancy Darling, a developmental psychologist, described in New York magazine.
It is interesting how this jibes with an educational system that focuses upon the virtues of good conduct. The Torah mandates that children replace “finders keepers, losers weepers” with “Eilu Metzios” — “these found objects are his, and these he is required to announce.” Nonetheless, one could also point to the rather fantastic consequences in “Wolf,” and conclude the children were capable of discerning between likely and unlikely consequences. They knew that if they lied on the tasks that followed, they were unlikely to be eaten.
The other surprising conclusion: children learn falsehood from their parents. It’s worth a look.