photo by Ruth Houston Barrett
"Heather didn't do it, it was me!"
Frequently, in therapy with children, their caregivers have a powerful need to list all of the kid's faults, as if the longer and louder their list, the bigger the prize they will win. It's analogous to what couples sometimes do in therapy, but in this case, it is one-sided, and the child tends to shrink smaller and smaller, the longer it goes on. Which, as the therapist, I redirect. There is a time for the parent or other caregiver (and it's often a non-parent caregiver in these situations, and it is often a very sad situation for the child) to speak with me one-on-one and feel heard and supported, but the time is not with the child sitting there.
It has struck me as surprising that a very common top-priority charge in these cases is that the child lies. I'm afraid that I've heard this so many times that I have an internal struggle to remain patient when I hear it. Of course children in conflictual, punitive, abusive, unpredictable, neglectful, or otherwise troubled family homes lie. They would be incredibly self-destructive or dumb not to. Not only that -- where on Earth did parents get the idea that people are truly supposed to tell the truth all the time?
It is so prevalent a fiction (lie) that telling the truth is what good people always do, that it sounds shocking to many when I say: Our job is not to teach children to always tell the truth, but to help them to negotiate when, why, what, and how much truths to tell. Especially children in troubled environments. In fact, "good" people -- meaning those who care greatly about doing what is best for others -- negotiate levels of truth constantly. Here are the two most clear levels:
#1 When you should tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth:
Most of the time, as a habit, but especially:
When someone is counting on the information, or when having false information will harm someone.
#2 When you should not tell the truth:
When someone has no need for the information, and when having the truth will harm them or someone else. Often called the "white lie," and some teach this exception as something we do courteously or to spare others' feelings. But there are other, more serious, times when lying is actually the safer or morally superior thing to do, and personally, I believe children should get some real education on this.
I put it to you that what we really need to teach is the importance of #1 AND the judgment to determine when #2 applies.
Here's the rub -- what if the someone who will be harmed is oneself? Is it okay to lie in that situation? Let me tell you, if you were in some of the situations these kids are in, you might think it was the right thing to do.
One situation that comes to mind: A very thin 7-year-old boy with severe ADHD was struggling hard and was super stressed with terrible feelings about himself; he had a hard time being still and focusing, even with heavy doses of meds that zapped his appetite. The mother -- who could have been focusing on any of several serious needs her son had -- could only talk about what an awful liar her son was. Exploring further uncovered that she was really talking about confessions, such as a lamp that got broken. It turned out that when her son finally admitted he had knocked it over, she allowed her boyfriend to whip him with a belt, followed by an evening spent locked in his room without dinner. (Of course, this necessitated my calling child protective services.)
Now should this child, morally, tell the truth? What about prisoners of war who would be beaten, say, for passing notes. Should they tell the truth? What about someone in a bank during an armed robbery -- should they let the robbers know that there is someone hiding around the corner, calling the police?
Okay, these are extreme and dramatic situations.
How about this one -- how many of us have ever lied about liking a gift that was given to us? Is that wrong or right to do?
A child who hasn't seen their mentally challenged parent in some time meets with him in a supervised visitation. The one gift the parent has ever given the kid is an old violin. The parent asks whether the child is practicing every day. Should the child tell the truth? What is the most moral thing to do? In the case I saw, the child lied and said they loved the violin and hoped to be really good at it some day, and changed the subject. It was one of the most elegant, caring acts of thoughtful lying I've ever seen, and this child was only 12 years old.
Again, too extreme?
Okay, what does a child say if they were unable to turn in their homework because their father, as punishment for his drunken misperception that the kid was smart-mouthing him, threw it in in the trash and poured their coffee over it. Are they morally obligated to tell their teacher this truth? Perhaps it would be understandable for them to say they were ill and needed an extra day to complete it. Or should I have focused on the terribleness of lying, when I saw this kid during the divorce (Mom had had enough)?
What should you do if you want your child to tell YOU the truth?
Check yourself, and see what you are teaching them to expect from you when you do.
I once wrote a paper in which I made the case that truth and beauty were almost the same thing; now I would change that to say that it is beautiful when it is safe to speak the truth, that ultimate truths of the universe are indeed beautiful, but that in our messy lives we sometimes do better with some caring fiction.