When I had kids I vowed that I would do things differently than my dad had. Specifically, I would be honest. My dad was a master at fudging the facts. As a salesman, he had learned to simply omit details that didn’t support his point.
|My dad--don't make eye contact, he'll sell you something.|
He told my teachers and friend’s parents that they’d make a mint by investing in his business ventures without telling them that he hadn’t made a dime. They handed their money over to man wearing threadbare pants shiny from wear and shoes with soles affixed with superglue.
Dad told lies small and big--like “I’ll pay you back,” and “I do.” He told me mom left us when she really left him. He said our live-in nanny was there to take care of me when she was really there to take care of him. He promised each move we made would be our last though we moved nine times in the eight years I lived with him.
When I had children, I pledged that I would tell them the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I would be sincere and direct about everything. And I’ve tried, I really have. But I’ve discovered that day-to-day life with kids is full of half-truths and small lies. A little dishonesty greases the wheels of interaction; it moves things along. I can’t explain everything all the time. Lies are shorthand.
Things I’ve lied about in the past week alone (and their more-nuanced truths): your brother is going to bed right after you do (he stays up much, much later); you’re getting really good at money math (you can’t tell a quarter from a dime); these are the only choices for dinner (this is all I feel like making); I can’t keep playing legos because I’m so tired (I’m hungover); that song you just played on the piano sounds great (it doesn’t); we can’t afford it (we can, but we choose not to buy it for you). To appease my kids, I routinely laugh at unfunny jokes and listen intently to painfully dull stories---artifice is part of being a parent.
Or is it? My husband tells of his mom dragging him back out to the ticket booth between movies to pay for the next in their double feature and driving back to the store upon realizing she’d been given too much change. I’ve had my own experience with my mother-in-law’s honesty. Sometimes it’s a comfort and other times it stings. Once, when I gave her a birthday gift, she shrugged, and said simply “Thanks,” before going right back to brushing crumbs into her hand from the kitchen counter. She didn’t gussy up her gratitude with comments like “I love it” and “I can’t wait to wear it.” My sister-in-law commented that she liked the shirt I’d given and my mother-in-law, still standing in the spot where she’d opened it, said, “Do you want it?” Ouch. But, that day my mother-in-law became the person to ask if this dress is too tight or if this haircut flatters my face.
While it’s good to hear a forthright opinion, all truth all the time would be a painful reality. I’m sure my daughter doesn’t want to hear that I can see her underwear through her favorite leggings and that each time she bends over the big monkey face on her panties smiles at me through the thin fabric. And my son wouldn’t want to know that this year’s school photo is his worst yet with a glint off his glasses and his hair looking like it was just rubbed by a balloon.
Our society places a premium on morality with platitudes like “honesty is the best policy,” but lying has its place. We dodge to save feelings, to keep friends, to inspire confidence--all things that spring from love. Yet even if my intentions are good, telling lies around my kids is tricky. No sooner will I hang up the phone after saying I can’t join some activity because I don’t feel well (instead of the more hurtful “I don’t want to”) than I’ll look up to see my kids staring at me expectantly, waiting for a sneeze or cough. They hear everything. All this talk about the government prying into our personal lives? Well, the National Security Administration could learn a thing or two about snooping from my kids.
I recently complained to a friend about the difficulty of teaching kids that lying is wrong while also, well, lying and she said that she doesn’t think small lies are a big deal as long as we are emotionally honest. She recounted how her father had routinely misrepresented her age to save money at movies and diners but how she never doubted his honesty on topics of importance to her.
I like the idea of emotional honesty. It leaves room for both embellishment and candor. I can assure my kids that they have great singing voices (insert cringe here) while also straightforwardly answering their big life questions. When it comes to honesty with our kids, maybe the bigger questions are: how much truth can they handle? And when?
My son put me to the test when he was only four. He sat in the back of the car in his booster seat, his sneakered feet swinging, still years from touching the floor. He kicked my seat a little as he asked, “Mom, how are babies made?” I was glad that the thrum of movement and the distraction of passing signs and cars offered me a moment to think. It also gave me new empathy for my dad’s impulse to control what I knew to prevent me from gaining some information before I was ready for it (though I also know he often withheld to serve his own purposes too).
That day, on California’s highway 210, I was honest and evasive. I pushed aside the idea of the stork and looked into the rearview mirror to meet my son’s eyes, “It’s call conception. Have you ever heard that word?” He shook his head. He was an early reader, already devouring chapter books; he loved learning. I spelled “conception” for him. I asked him to repeat it. I took the focus off of the act and put it on the word. We drove on to school with him chanting “conception”--a novel word new in his mouth. It was enough. I waited years until the question came up again to share the explicit facts and emotional complexities of sex with him.
My son has evolved into the most honest person I know. He’ll admit to any misdeeds; his untold doings gnaw at him till he fesses up. He’s the proverbial open book--a frank autobiography. My daughter, on the other hand, is more like a mystery novel. She lies with ease. Like the day I found six pieces of chewed-up purple gum stuck to the hardwood floor behind the chair in her room; she stood there straight-faced with artificial grape breath and denied knowing anything about it. My daughter also happens to be our household's master at the bluffing card game B.S. (you might remember it from college with it’s longer, more profane title).
|If only this picture captured who was eating it...|
Recently I found a bowl of chocolate chips resting on our couch. Who in our house thinks a bowl full of chocolate is an okay snack? When questioned, my son unequivocally said, “It’s not mine.” My daughter started pulling from a bag of tricks that included avoiding eye contact (she focused intently on an ipad), over-explaining (“I don’t even like brown chocolate, I like white chocolate like you, Dad, that’s what you like right, right?”), and exaggerated shrugging to show that she was as clueless as we were about how those chips got there. She didn’t budge.
Before I knew it, I heard myself saying, “Well, the video on my phone will show who did it, I’d just prefer if one of you told the truth before I watched that.” That’s right, I attempted to extract the truth by using a lie as bait. I’m not proud of it. Commotion ensued. What?! Your phone was videoing us? Does it video us all the time? Does it have to be in the room? Do you have to be in the room? The questions got increasingly technical until I shut them down by saying, “If the snacker owns up by bedtime, they’ll be punished less than if they wait until I learn the truth on my own (presumably by watching the nonexistent video).” At tuck-in, my daughter said--so quietly it was barely discernible--“I did it.”
The day after her confession, I started feeling badly about my own lie. I didn’t want my children to believe they were under constant video surveillance--I know from living under their watchful gazes how cramped that might feel--so I confessed to my son. He was relieved and forgiving. I still haven’t told my daughter because I can too easily imagine her dredging it back up in her own defense: “But you lied too.” I don’t want to normalize dishonesty for her; therefore my lie stands.
We have to be honest to gain trust and build relationships but sometimes a sweet lie is better than the harsh truth; it’s all about context and intent. It’s a carefully choreographed dance that parents do--knowing when to step in and step back, making mistakes, starting over. My dad had plenty of mis-steps, but I'm realizing that parenting is more complex than I assumed when I was judging him.