Note: With a culture of chronic lying and “alternative facts” permeating the highest levels of government and media, many parents are concerned about how to counter the culture and raise children who value honesty and integrity. As always, it begins with the example we set. This piece, first published in 2011, is as relevant today as ever–perhaps even more so.
When I was a kid we celebrated George Washington’s birthday by gluing white silhouettes of our first president to red and blue paper, reading about Valley Forge, the Continental Congress, wooden teeth, and how, as a boy, he chopped down a cherry tree. Legend has it that when confronted by his father, he confessed to the deed with “I can’t tell a lie, Pa.” Today, the authenticity of the cherry-tree story is open to question, but a study by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment claims that adults tell an average of three lies per day. Most often, this study concluded, we lie to our partners, but we also lie to our coworkers and our friends. We lie about tasks done or not done, about what we’ve eaten, what we spend, where we’re going, where we’ve been, who we’ve been with today or long ago. What this study appears not to have explored is how often we lie to our children.
Raising and working with at-risk or special needs children will test your commitment to truthfulness. They often reject the illogical, the unjust, the nuanced. They crave order, logic, and fact. When truth will bring them grief, anger, anxiety, or confusion, is it okay to lie? If we lie in the name of fun and tradition, will these children experience it that way? Every year at holiday time, I get questions about how to handle the Santa dilemma. Perpetuate the Santa myth and what happens when the child discovers, years down the line, that you sold him an untruth? Ditto for the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. On more serious ground, when that first pet dies, isn’t it easier to tell the child that Fido was “put to sleep”? Is it lying to sneak vegetables into other foods, or to plead “no money” to avoid a scene in the toy store or grocery?
Only you can decide how deeply the untruths you tell the children in your life, regardless of motivation, will affect your ability to build trusting relationships with them. But in order to do so, we should ask ourselves, why do we lie?
We often perpetuate “fun” lies like Santa or the Tooth Fairy out of our expectation that our children will enjoy the same traditions we did. A child who views the world in concrete terms may see it quite differently. I’m asked on a regular basis how I handled these things and, with the caveat that each family is unique, I answer with this short excerpt from my essay, “The Rules of Believing”:
I told my kids that Santa Claus was a fun make-believe person, like Big Bird or Batman. This scandalized my boss. “What?!” he sputtered. “Are you telling me that Big Bird isn’t real?” Likewise, the Tooth Fairy in our house was actually a Tooth Ferry, a lovely wooden replica of the ones that steam back and forth across Puget Sound. The tooth still turned into a dollar bill by morning, but who did it was no mystery. When I attempted to inject a little exotica into the tooth experience by giving Connor a Fijian dollar, he quickly kicked me back to reality with his exasperated response, “Whaaa? I can’t spend this!” Bryce was even more direct: “I know it’s you. Can I just have the money?”
But beyond “fun” lies is the more complicated realm of everyday lies, the motivation for which is almost always to avoid uncomfortable consequences. That is, unpleasant reactions from the person to whom we are lying, whether that reaction be anger, anguish, or retaliation. The problem with these kind of lies is that they may avoid a difficult moment, but do nothing to build good habits, decision-making and self-sufficiency skills, or self-confidence in our children—the instilling of which requires patient and consistent repetition over the whole course of a childhood. And worse, such lies may spawn a more lasting problem.
Telling a child that Fido was put to sleep bypasses an opportunity to have a gentle, factual conversation about how all life has a beginning, a middle, and an end. When beloved Fido is “put to sleep” and never comes back, the stage has been set for a child to develop long-term fears about going to sleep, sleeping alone, or loving another pet.
“Stealth health” recipes may succeed in getting a carrot into a child, but that doesn’t help him learn to make good choices about eating a balanced diet. The scenario only worsens when your trickery is discovered and the child becomes even more recalcitrant about trying new foods.
Pleading “no money” to avoid a scene in a store is probably at least partially true. But if it’s happening regularly, it could be an opportunity to introduce the concept of discretionary exchange of money for goods, allowing the child a small allowance for each trip or each week, over which you exercise only reasonable veto power. A visual rules card for acceptable store behavior, reviewed before and during visits, helps the child build self-control and self-confidence.
The desire for my children’s trust drove my initial resolve to not lie to them—even in tough situations, even when I had to reveal my own shortcomings. But I soon came to believe that what we may consider benign, expedient lying to our children too frequently denies them opportunities to learn, grow, and mature. That’s at the better end of the continuum of consequences. At the other end we can be sure that our lying will eventually teach our children to do the same. (Let’s note here that the concept of white lies—lying to spare the feelings of another—merits a discussion all its own.)
I tried to make the to-lie-or-not-to-lie decisions easier for my sons by instilling in them that the lie was worse than whatever it was they would lie about, and that the consequences for lying would be sterner than for whatever the original transgression. I’m proud to say that, for lack of practice, they are terrible liars. Most of their lies were of the social face-saving variety. Although transparent, I let most of those slide. You will too.
The end of the George Washington tale is that George’s father told him that his honesty was worth more than any tree. Two hundred fifty years later, the scene repeated itself in my kitchen, albeit with a three- year-old and a bag of pilfered chocolate chips instead of a cherry tree. Both episodes are legend now, but Washington’s authentic words in later life are still ones to live by: “I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.”
© 2011, 2016 Ellen Notbohm