Over the years, I’ve frequently had occasion to consider the act of lying. I myself sometimes told lies when telling the truth was probably a better possibility. For instance, when asked in class if someone knew the answer to a particular question, I either didn’t respond or even claimed not to know because I’d rather say I didn’t know than risk getting it wrong. Perhaps, I even bowed out because it was uncomfortable to call attention to myself. This behavior, in fact, is something I try to evaluate when working with a student—it, after all, provides valuable information about the individual who chooses to respond that way.
I’ve also kind of been attuned to situations in which an adult requests a child to lie. It was so commonplace in previous years for a parent, who had seriously admonished a child not to lie, to say, “If it’s so and so on the phone, tell them I’m not home.” And, today, it is still not unusual for a parent to say, “Don’t tell—whomever—what we did, what I spent, what I said,” etc. Do as I say, not as I do? ? ? Not very effective!
But recently, the whole issue of lying really caught my attention. I was witness to a mom approaching another mom, both with children who had just turned 3. The approaching mom stated to the other mom, quizzically, “Yoni tells me Shayna eats candy for dinner? ”
Shayna’s mom laughed and said, emphatically, “No!”
So, several things were interesting. First, I was fascinated that a child as young as 3 could be so inventive and come up with a scheme to attempt to get what he wanted. I was sure—and still am—that no one suggested he try this deception, and so, there was creativity and intelligence behind it. It also intrigued me that his mother was somewhat tempted to accept what he said, perhaps finding it so hard to believe that he could make up a lie—either because he was such a “good” boy or because, how could he know how to do that?
Quite a few years ago, I was seated at the same table with a couple during a Passover holiday. Over lunch one day, the woman began to talk about her granddaughter, a young girl whose exceptional beauty she extolled. She was so beautiful, she went on to say, that whenever grandma walked with her in the neighborhood people would stop them just to comment on the child’s extreme good looks. Continuing, she mentioned that one day, when a woman turned to the child and said, “You know, you’re a very pretty little girl,” the child responded, “I know.” Well, grandma was exceptionally disturbed. How could she just say “I know”—terrible, terrible! But was it? What should the child have said? She was very young, I think around 3, everybody (according to grandma) kept telling her how pretty she was. It was something she knew, just a fact in her life, as if, for instance, someone said, “Oh, I see you have a band-aid on your knee” and she said, “I know.” Yes, once one learns that our cultural expectation would be to simply respond with a “thank you,” still the girl would know that she was pretty. And, really, what’s wrong with that? To deny that fact would be to encourage her to lie to herself, and, in extension, to deny a gift, even, one might say, a blessing, bestowed from Hashem.
There are situations in which one invites a child to lie. For instance, Mom walks into the kitchen, sees a chair pulled over to the counter, the door to the cabinet is open, the cracker box is partially out, there are crumbs on the counter and on the floor and, of course, across Moishy’s mouth and hands. What does Mom say, “Moishy, did you take crackers after I told you to wait? ”
Poor Moishy! Does he have any reason to believe that if he says “no” there’s a good chance that mommy will believe him? What would be better would be to simply say something like, “Moishy, I’m so disappointed in you. I asked you to wait before taking crackers and I expected you to listen.” Then, of course, it would be up to Mom to decide if there would be repercussions and what they would be.
Teaching a child about “lying” is a tricky thing. While one of our commandments is “Thou shalt not lie,” does it mean literally across every situation? I hope not. There are often good reasons to lie. I can’t help but think of a recent commercial for insurance. The scene is a bedroom with Abraham Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln dressing in preparation for some event. Mrs. Lincoln turns to her hubby and asks (you all know this proverbial question) “Does this dress make me look fat? ”Poor “Honest Abe,” without uttering a sound, his expression loudly answers, YES!Mrs. Lincoln is in a huff!It would have been so much kinder and gentler if Abe weren’t so honest this time!
Sometimes there are situations when lying is a positive thing. I remember, for instance, my daughter (then about 7) opening a beautifully wrapped gift from my aunt only to find what I knew was to her—and, to be honest, to me, too—a horrible skirt. I was momentarily panicked as I anticipated her exclaiming, “Ugh.” However, she looked right at my aunt and said, “Thank you very much.” I was both relieved and pleased, pleased that she had learned that being careful of someone else’s feelings is important, more important, in fact in this case, than revealing one’s own true thoughts and/or feelings. To complete the story, after my aunt left, she turned to me pleadingly and asked, “Can we change this for something else? ”After agreeing to do so, I made sure to tell her I thought she did a wonderful thing.
So, lying can be helpful and a positive at times for ourselves and in regard to others. When does it come to be something to be concerned about? I think there are several cautionary situations, especially if a parent becomes aware that a child’s lying is actually being done in ways that are harmful to him/her. For instance, is he saying he understands something in school when he really doesn’t? Is she saying she doesn’t want to participate in something when she really does? In these cases, it’s important to try to understand what is going on, why the child is lying and then try to straighten out what is most likely an underlying problem that is probably causing the child some pain.
Another situation that should cause concern is compulsive lying—when the lie serves no purpose and one realizes s/he is being lied to, but the liar him or herself is aware that the other person knows what’s being said is a lie. This is could be pathological and thus warrants looking into. There is a belief in psychology that every behavior is saying something. As caring parents, we want to find out what our child is saying by choosing a particular behavior. There is a possibility that the child (or adult) who does this feels a desperate insecurity, believes that nothing s/he says is right or thinks that whatever they say is thought to be a lie, even when telling the truth.
In my world of school psychology, experiencing lies, sadly and unfortunately, is commonplace. Many parents, knowing that “classified” students get extended time on exams, often try to get their children classified prior to taking the PSAT’s and the SAT’s. There are even school administrators who are compliant in creating a deception. Does this do harm? Absolutely. And to whom? On the most basic level, it undermines the whole system. It certainly harms those students who are truly legitimately classified, as the level of their abilities becomes unfairly juxtaposed with those who have no learning or other disability. It harms the students who are getting the advantage through lying, as the lesson it teaches is that the ends always justifies the means, that their needs and desires are more important and come before all others, that their parents are cheats and manipulators and not to be trusted and, if, indeed, school personnel are involved in the deceit, that, in general, people are not moral.
Lies, when they cause harm, are dreadful, negative things—think Bernie Madoff. However, as with many things in life, there are two—or maybe even more—sides to the issue of lying.
Nancy is a Certified School Psychologist, Motivational Speaker, and psychotherapist with an office in Paramus, anticipating publication of her first children’s book. http://www.thepsychspeaks.com/
By Nancy Silberman Zwiebach