Once, when we were out camping, I was tidying up our campsite when I noticed that one of our spare tent cords, used as an extra tether when there’s a stiff wind, had been neatly cut into four pieces, tied in a knot, and left lying in the dirt. The intent wasn’t clear, but the likely culprit was.
I found Pippa, who was 5 at the time, and told her we needed to talk.
I led her away from the rest of our group to have our conversation. My intent was to keep from shaming her in public, but I think the walk only made her more apprehensive. I’m not sure if she knew what I wanted to talk about, but she could tell it wasn’t good.
I showed her the pieces of cord. “What do you know about these?”
It took a few seconds for her to recognize them, then her gaze dropped to her feet. “Nothing,” she said, nearly inaudible.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “It’s a rope we use to tie down the tent and keep it safe in a storm. Someone cut it to pieces. Did you do that?”
She shook her head. At this point, I let the silence hang over us for a while, figuring she’d fess up if I gave her some time, but she just stood there. After a minute, I tried a different approach.
“You know, I’m not mad. Whoever cut it up probably didn’t know what it was for. I just want to solve the mystery. And I want to make sure they know not to do anything else to our camping gear unless they ask first.”
By now, the weight of her guilt was pressing down on her shoulders — you could see her getting smaller. Tears welled up in her eyes and she started to sniffle and tremble, but still, she said nothing. I had started this convinced that I was about to teach her an important life lesson about accepting responsibility and telling the truth, but now we were stuck. She was backed into a corner, trapped between her guilt and her pride. In the end, I cracked first.
“OK,” I said. “If you figure out who did it, let them know they made a mistake, and tell them to ask first, next time. Would you do that for me?”
She nodded, and the tears started to flow in earnest. I gave her a big hug, and we walked back to our campsite together.
As often happens in parenting, I ended up with more questions than answers. Did I let her get away with telling a lie? I guess so. But did she really get away with it? She certainly felt bad about what she did. Did I want her to feel bad? Was I making too big a deal about a spare piece of string? Or was there some kind of principle at stake? Did I manage to make my point without shaming her, or did I shame her anyway? Did I really make my point at all? What was my point, anyway?
Lies of convenience
I learned with my two older kids that none of this gets easier with time. As they get older, they don’t stop fibbing, they just get good at it. The smarter they are, the better they are at lying, and the less likely they are to admit it, even if they’re caught red-handed.
Sometimes, when I need a little perspective, I remember all the times I lied to my own parents. Of course, I never thought of it as lying, exactly. I was stretching the truth. I was failing to mention things. I was protecting my privacy. I was gaming the system. Or maybe I just didn’t want to hear their lecture.
And what about now? In anonymous surveys, adults admit to lying an average of once or twice a day. I’d say I’m right in that range. Sure, they’re mostly lies of convenience, or politeness, or to spare someone’s feelings. Harmless … at least if you ask me.
I don’t want to be a moral nihilist here. Honesty is a real virtue, and lies come in all shapes and sizes — some big enough to do a lot of harm. But before I get too high and mighty with my kids about their complicated dance with the truth, I should probably take a good, hard look at my own.
Published May 8, 2022