by Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW
How many of us are willing to admit we lie? Aside from answering the weight question on our driver’s licenses which most of us pretend is asking our lowest weight in the past twenty or thirty years as opposed to our current weight, people usually consider themselves really honest.
And yet do we tell our children that a fat bearded man who lives on the North Pole and drives a team of airborne reindeer delivers their gifts at Christmas time?…Through the chimney? Do we insist invisible fairies spirit away their baby teeth and replace them with money?
Do we tell our sweet, clueless aunt Matilda that we really love the pink and orange crochet dish towel she gave us for our birthday? Do we tell our husband that his new khaki pants, indistinguishable from the old khaki pants, look nice? Or our wife that indeed it is the jeans, and not the fat, that make her fanny look fluffy? Do we tell a friend we have neglected to call back when she calls again, “I was just going to call you!” even though we were had completely forgotten about her first phone call?
Most of us do not maintain perfect honesty and this can actually be a good thing. Aside from preventing the wholesale death of childhood magic (see above), lying can protect the emotional wellbeing of others. This can be self-serving, as in the famous “brown nosing” that happens in work and school settings across the planet, and it can be a weasel-flavored method of conflict avoidance, but it can also be an act of kindness and service.
For example, a friend of mine was recently in a car accident. She was driving by herself when it happened. Her car was totaled and she was fortunate to sustain no major injuries. When her children asked about the accident, she lied about the details to downplay the severity and risk of what happened and what could have happened. She did not let them see her vehicle after the accident.
“I don’t want them worrying about it,” she said. By not telling the whole truth she was consciously choosing to protect her children from anxiety about her safety and wellbeing. Children are antenna-sensitive to the health of their parents, and protecting them from unnecessary worry is good parenting.
Of course, there are the kind of lies that have no interpersonal or emotional altruism, that are told purely to advantage the liar and manipulate the feelings and beliefs of the listener. Let’s all agree that this kind of dishonesty is bad, shall we? And then I won’t have to bore the tar out of you blathering on social contract theory, or karma, or Golden Rule, etc…
On the other extreme there are people who insist on total honesty, who see truth-telling as a badge of honor, and see themselves as more morally upright than the rest of the world. As a society, we need these people because they are often the first to raise a ruckus when trusted and powerful leaders are mistreating citizens. But they often miss the importance and validity of other people’s truth. For example, I used to read “Ms.” Magazine, but quickly found the tone so angry and one sided, it literally exhausted me to read it.
As a psychotherapist I’ve noticed that a good deal of those rigorously honest people could be labeled with autism or asbergers disorder, two conditions that manifest themselves in unskillful and rigid social interactions along with a general underlying lack of empathy.
So why am I writing about lying? Because in spite of the fact that I consider myself basically a thoroughly honest person, I recently lied to my own children, and I did it for their own good: My identical twins were tested for the school district’s “highly capable” program, and only one of them got in. I worried that this information would cause one boy to feel inferior, lower his self-esteem as well as increase the conflict with his brother. So I appealed the decision to the school district and told my boys the lie that they both got in and that we were considering the appropriate school placement.
This is not the first time I have lied to my children (I used to tell them that they were born at the same time, then when they discovered this was medically impossible I told them that as soon as they could go for one year without hitting each other I would tell them who came out first, which pretty much guarantees they will never know), and it’s probably not the last.
All of this evokes that yummy old question “is morality relative or absolute?” Or put another way, “Does context influence the appropriateness of truth telling?” The answer, depending on which philosopher you consult, is yes, no and maybe.