True story: a friend of mine, many years ago, was watching an episode of the cartoon Arthur with her daughter, then aged 4 or 5. In the story, the family was in the car together and the baby aardvark loudly and fragrantly filled her diaper. Stuck in traffic and with no escaping the smell, the sister aardvark rolled down her window, stuck her head out and shouted “GAS CHAMBER!”
Bewildered, my friend’s child asked her what a gas chamber is. Startled, my friend drew on her still-virginal well of maternal reserve—this was her first child, she wasn’t going to lie to her—and embarked on a brief, but historically accurate description of the Nazis, to her wide-eyed daughter.
That story has stayed with me for years, for I too, want to be a shining paragon of virtue in the eyes of my young children! I want them to see me as a beacon of honor and dignity, a figure on whom they could model themselves.
But would I have told that young girl the truth?
We want our children to feel safe, right? Sometimes, the truth is a lot for even adults to grasp, like in Nazi Germany, or when someone shoots up a school, or when we have saddled our country with a president whom you quite reasonably believe might launch a nuclear strike over comments on the size of his hands. I can assure you that that mother, now many years and several children wiser, would have answered her daughter’s inquiry with a fart joke.
What question would probably scare the bejeezus out of you? Because the fact is, you probably have told a porky or two.
You decided the truth would scare her. Or you lied to protect his feelings.
It’s okay. We’ve all been there.
So sometimes we lie about big-picture issues.
I have come to peace with this parenting truth, but I was still unprepared for the question my eight-year-old posed to me last night. Smelling like watermelon shampoo and still pink from his bath, he commando-crawled over to where I sat on the floor, “Just So Stories” opened in my lap, reading to him before he went to bed. Wiggling his head under the book and atop my leg, he peered up at me.
“Mom?” he asked.
“Uh, I’m reading?” I replied, stating the obvious and waving the book at him, slightly annoyed that he interrupted the tale’s rhythm.
With something clearly on his mind, he ignored me. “Can I ask you something?”
Okay, he had my attention. I put the book aside. “Sure,” I said.
“Have you ever lied to me?” he asked. “Maybe about something small, but lied to me, to make me feel good about myself?”
“Holy moly,” I thought, although in somewhat more colorful terms. Now what should I do?
Lie about lying? “No, I’ve never lied to you, ever.”
Tell the truth about lying? “Yes, I lied when I said ‘Of course I think you can play in the NBA.”
Like Schwarzenegger in The Terminator, I mentally scrolled through possible replies, some honest, others, not so much. And then, glancing at his sweet, open gaze, I went with the truth: “Yes. I have lied to you. I don’t remember when, and that’s the truth. But I probably have.”
Then I held my breath...
...and released it, as he sighed in relief.
“I thought so,” he said. “I thought so. I’ve seen you do it. Like, I can see when Joey’s dad comes to pick him up from our house, and Joey tells him about his progress in our video game, and his dad says really excited things but I don’t think he means it.”
“Do you think Joey believes him?”
“Yes. Yes, I do,” he replied. “I think he does. But I don’t.”
I paused another moment, feeling my way on unfamiliar terrain.
“Yeah,” I nodded. “I’ve seen that, too. So. Why do you think his dad lies to him about video games?”
My son answered immediately: “Because his dad wants him to feel good,” he said.
I could tell that he didn’t feel much more comfortable with this chat than I did. I don’t know what he was thinking, but on my end, I was worried about whether he’d be upset at this glimpse behind the curtain, and I was afraid that he’d lose respect for me. Or that he would no longer believe what I say. And what if my admission let him think it’s okay for him to lie, too? Is that just be realistic? Isn’t he going to lie at some point anyway? Hasn’t he, probably, already? Should I make him feel ashamed of that? Isn’t shame itself pretty damaging?
We were each lost in our thoughts for a moment. Then, speaking in a serious tone, I broke the silence:
“You know I don’t remotely care about your video game progress, right?”
We both laughed, and the tension between us dissipated. So I decided to push forward. “Do you ever lie to me?”
He looked at me, looked away, then back again.
“Yep,” he said. “But not about the big stuff.”
I felt good about that, until I realized that we might have different ideas about what counts as “big stuff.” So I asked.
“Well, I don’t lie about how I do on tests at school,” he said. “But sometimes I lie about whether I like your cooking.”
Hmmmm. A mixed bag, that reply.
But he seemed satisfied with the exchange, and lay on his back, regally indicating I could get back to the book, so I did. Oddly, my halo felt a lot better with a little tarnish on it.