Thursday, April 04, 2019


The average person admits to telling 1.65 lies per day according to one study done on the subject, although even the researchers confess that since they, by necessity, had to rely on self-reporting, people were probably lying toward the low end. Of course, it could also be that we all define things differently: some may consider nothing but outright falsehoods to be lying, while others may be sensitive to even those small lies of omission or exaggeration we commit by way of burnishing our own reputations or saving the feelings of others. 

But however we look at it, we all, to some extent, lie. I try not to lie. You try not to lie. Most of us have internalized the maxim that honesty is the best policy, yet at the end of the day, if we're truthful with ourselves, we can always look back and find those moments when we at least did not tell the full truth. And this is not necessarily a bad thing: evolutionary biologists tell us that lying is an essential part of our evolution as a species, that the ability to tell and detect lies is an important aspect of developing our social intelligence. Of course, as adults, most of us have learned that an over-reliance upon lying is destructive to our social and emotional world, and some of us may even strive to never lie no matter what, but the goal of living a lie-free life is one that will only be attained by the saints.

So it shouldn't surprise us when our children lie: it is part of their heritage as humans. When they're preschoolers it's usually quite easy to tell when a child is lying, but if they are going to be socially intelligent, they will get better at it, even if only to save the feelings of others. Children lie to me almost daily. I don't really care unless it is a lie of substance. I generally don't correct or challenge them, but rather simply affect to take them at face value the way I want others to take me at face value when I burnish or exaggerate. I suppose I could successfully bully them into confessing the truth, but toward what end? I'm not going to "teach" them not to lie by lecturing them any more than I'm going to teach them to read by lecturing. They will have to learn about the pitfalls of lying the way the rest of us did: via the lessons of going to far and the attendant shame and humiliation of being found out. Or worse, the guilt that most of us feel when we get away with a whopper.

Most of the lying around the classroom could really be classified almost as classic dramatic or pretend play: children trying on costumes or behaviors by way of discovering something beyond their everyday world. More often than not, children who have lied to me will later circle back to let me know that they had been "joking" or "pretending" or "tricking." I always imagine that there is a feeling of regret or even remorse behind those confessions. There are some that worry that if we don't nip lying in the bud, children will grow into unstoppable monsters, but from where I sit, that can only be true if we're willing to hang that label on most of humanity. Most children, most of the time, will learn the very lessons we have about lying: that it's not something to be proud of, but inevitable as we negotiate our social and professional lives.

Last week, our four and five-year-olds decided to make a new classroom rule: No lying. They all agreed, so by way of clarifying, I asked the kids to tell one another what "lying" means. Most of them had a vague notion that it involved saying things that weren't true, but many included behaviors like "stealing" and "hitting" in their definitions. In other words, the concept is still unclear, which is why they need to explore it: and in the spirit of play, they need to experience it from both sides, repeatedly, in order to really understand it. It's been fascinating as they have begun to accuse one another of breaking the rule, the discussions and arguments have been heated, with everyone denying that they have lied, even if they aren't really sure what that means. In other words, they already know it's "wrong," they just don't know what it is. 

I'm looking forward to being there as they work toward that better and essential understanding, one they can only get to through experience. To be socially intelligent one must understand lying and the only way to learn about it is to practice.

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