Some time ago, perhaps even ten years, my eldest son asked me why lying is wrong. I was stumped. In the moment I couldn’t think of a reason beyond “Because it is! Because good people don’t do it.” I was shocked by my inability to answer the question quickly, succinctly, and thoroughly when put on the spot. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that if I can’t show or explain to this young child that there’s a good reason lying is wrong, how do I teach him not to do it? Or how do I teach him to know when it is okay and when it’s not?
I assume that generally, most people think lying is wrong. Yet everyone lies. Is it always wrong? Is it wrong to tell our children that Santa is real? Is it wrong for a child to tell an inquisitive stranger that their parent will be there to pick them up any minute, when in fact they’re catching the bus? Is it wrong for a child to say they did something that they didn’t, because they know the consequence for their guilty friend will be significantly more harsh than their own?
From my parenting experience, very young children do not realise that being honest is a choice. They appear to become aware that lying is an option between the ages of three and four, when they very quickly learn that it can get them out of trouble. They seem to learn this before they learn that lying can get them into a whole lot of trouble. At the moment, if I took my six and three year old sons’ words for it, our two-year-old would be wrongly held accountable for a large number of things.
“Who tipped all the Lego out onto the rug?”
“Why is the bathroom floor covered in water?”
“Teddy threw it.”
“Joey, why is Malachi crying?”
“Theodore kicked him.”
Poor little Ted. Constantly receiving the blame! In addition, he’s rarely even aware of it and can’t stick up for himself.
Lies such as these are wrong. There is clear intent to deceive, and an awareness that the information given is incorrect. In addition, the resulting consequence is misplaced and possibly damaging. Lies are not always this cut and dry. People can, and often do, lie with good intentions. Is there such a thing as a good lie? What about Santa, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny? What about when Max the Border Collie was sent to live on a farm? Does it matter if telling a lie brings about a positive consequence, or is told with good intentions? Or is it morally wrong, regardless?
Where is the line? What makes a lie acceptable or not? I guess it depends on your view of ethics; your conscience. In my mind, the primary reason lying is wrong is that it damages trust and integrity, and therefore negatively affects relationships. There are a whole host of reasons I could use to justify lying is wrong: It’s selfish, disrespectful, is likely to cause pain, deprives people of the ability to make informed decisions, etcetera, etcetera. However, I can easily fault these reasons. Sometimes people lie in an attempt to be respectful or to avoid pain. Sometimes a lie is told to advantage someone else and is not selfish at all. Sometimes a lie may not impact someone else’s decisions at all. I struggle though, to think of a lie, that if exposed, would not damage trust or integrity, and consequently relationships. The severity of this potential damage is varying, and perhaps that’s what we can use as a determiner for the acceptability of a lie.
In my parenting, sometimes I have rules for myself. One of my rules is that I don’t lie to my kids. I know that others watching me would say that I do. But it’s a way for me to monitor myself. My six year old blurted out in the car on the way home from school this week, “Santa’s not real you know.” It would be against my rule to tell him that Santa is real. So instead I said something like “What makes you say that?” To which he said he didn’t know and the conversation was over. I do lead my children to believe in Santa. We have presents from Santa and we leave carrots for the reindeer. But if I am straight out asked a question, I will not lie to my children. If I don’t want to tell them the truth, or I don’t think they’re ready to hear it, I tell them that. There is a blurry line I walk with regards to when withholding information becomes a lie. Outside of my own children, it’s hard to articulate how I determine whether lying is acceptable or not. And I guess this is something each individual has to figure out for themselves. Basically I think I consider the degree of damage to my integrity and subsequent damage to my relationships and whether this lie worth risking these things. I would consult my conscience, does it feel right? I do trust my intuition, but I would still question why it does or doesn’t feel right. I would consider if I would be happy to admit this lie to those I respect most; to those whose approval I value? I would also consider both how I would feel if I were on the receiving end of this lie, and then consider how the person on the receiving end will benefit from this lie.
How do you decide if a lie is acceptable or not? How do you teach this to your children?
About the Author
Gabrielle left her job as an Assistant Principal in a secondary school to follow her dream of making a difference to future generations by teaching emotional intelligence. To supplement this, she worked as a secondary relief teacher, she tutor school students as well as adults from non-English speaking backgrounds, and she is a freelance writer who intermittently ghost writes blogs for websites other than her own. As a hobby she write books. She have written a children’s book that won 3rd prize in the CYA Conference in 2016 that is currently being illustrated, and she is in the midst of working on a Young Adult novel. She is a parent, but it is not what defines her. She blogs at www.quartsandall.com about her life as a mother of four boys, and the topics she write about are varied.