COMMENTARY: The real truth about lying

Joe PIsani
Joe PIsani

For every parent whose son or daughter ever lied — which is just about every parent who ever paid for braces or college — there’s new research that says punishing young liars only makes the problem worse.

They might go down the path that leads to larceny, perjury and plagiarism, not to mention tax evasion and adultery. Or they could end up like Bernie Madoff and be very rich liars — in a prison cell.

A study by McGill University published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology claims that punishing kids who get caught telling lies contributes to the problem. Youngsters who are reprimanded for lying are more likely to do it again.

But kids who are given a moral justification to tell the truth realize honesty is its own reward, even though the reward may be less lucrative than fraud.

McGill studied youngsters ages 4 to 8 to see whether they obeyed when asked not to peek at a toy. More than two-thirds of the group eventually peeked, and two-thirds of those who peeked lied about it.

Professor Victoria Talwar said, “Children often lie to conceal transgressions. Having done something wrong or broken a rule, they may choose to lie to try to conceal it … The bottom line is punishment does not promote truth-telling.”

A bar of Ivory soap

That leads me to conclude the punishments weren’t severe enough. We all know “time out” doesn’t work.

What we need are old-fashioned, innovative punishments like Ivory Soap. Anyone who’s ever had a bar of Ivory firmly planted between their teeth knows that it’s effective. And “99.44% pure.”

Washing my mouth out with soap was the disciplinary tactic of choice for my mother whenever I, (a) lied, (b) swore, or (c) was disrespectful. I have to admit, however, that it got a little embarrassing once I turned 20 and had to sit in the kitchen with a bar of Ivory sticking out of my mouth while my friends went bar-hopping.

But times change. More families are using soft soap, and corporal punishment is no longer popular. If I used the soap technique on my daughters, I’d probably end up in prison beside Bernie Madoff.

The best policy

Nevertheless, the McGill study presents us with enormous social challenges. If punishing liars is a bad idea, we need some serious judicial reform in America. Judges shouldn’t throw perjurers in the slammer. Instead, they should give them pep talks about the importance of honesty.

They might explain that honesty is the best policy and share the exemplary tale about George Washington, who once uttered, “I cannot tell a lie,” when asked if he cut down the cherry tree.

Or perhaps the famous parable about Bill Clinton, who was acquitted of perjury by the U.S. Senate in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but reformed after Congress lectured him.

'Bending the truth'

Every kid who went to Sunday school or heard about the Ten Commandments knows it’s a sin to lie. Then why are there so many liars?

Probably because lying pays off in America, where we have professions such as advertising, marketing, public relations, finance, and the media, which are committed to “bending the truth” for a good cause.

Lying, cheating and stealing are actually declining among young people, according to a survey of 23,000 high school students by the Josephson Institute of Ethics. Its biennial report showed that 51% of the students admitted they cheated on an exam, down from 59%, while 55% said they lied to teachers, down from 61%, and those who lied to their parents declined from 80% to 76%.

It makes you wonder, though. With only half of students cheating, is America on the road to recovery? I guess it’s better to look on the bright side.

Valuable social skill

Some of our country’s biggest liars pursued careers in politics and became our greatest leaders. We never punished them for lying. We rewarded them with re-election and they, in turn, rewarded us with higher taxes, Watergate, Vietnam, and sex scandals.

In America, lying is a valuable social skill that you need to succeed, and that’s the truth — the sad truth.

Joe Pisani, who grew up in Shelton’s Pine Rock neighborhood, may be reached at