Monday, December 27, 2021

Bald-Faced Lies; Bald-Faced Truth

We teach our children that lying is morally wrong. At the same time, we also don't want them blurting out the less-than-generous things they've heard us saying about about Aunt Gladys behind her back, even if those things are objectively true. The bald-faced truth can be every bit as awful as a bald-faced lie.

As adults, most of us have learned how to commit lies of omission. To this day, one of my mom's mantra's is, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." We justify this kind of lie by telling ourselves that we've not actually lied because we've not "told" anything, we've merely "edited" ourselves for the sake of social-emotional harmony. 

But we've also gotten good at what are referred to as "little white" or pro-social lies, those untruths we tell with the idea of not embarrassing or hurting another person, or even with the intent of bucking them up. It would never occur to most of us, for instance, to tell the bald-faced truth, "Yes, those pants make your butt look big." Or more honestly, "All your pants make your butt look big . . . because it is big" which is a direct quote from an actual 3-year-old.

Your own kids probably had to tell at least a few pro-social lies during the holiday season. According to a study performed by a team of Chinese and Canadian researchers, forty percent of 7-year-olds will tell a gift-giver that they like their gift even if they later admit to researchers that they don't like it. The percentage who avoid the bald-faced truth goes up as the children tested get older. Nearly ninety percent of 3-7 year olds will tell someone with lipstick on their nose that they "look okay" for a photograph, even though they will later tell researchers that the people did not look okay. 

This telling of pro-social lies isn't something that most of us attempt to teach children, possibly because we ourselves are still navigating it. But our kids seem to pick it up nevertheless, teaching themselves the nuanced differences between immoral or harmful lies and this other kind that we don't often speak about. In other words, most of us learn, without being taught, that the goal is to be basically honest without being a jerk.

I've had several autistic adults tell me that this was one of the most difficult lessons they had to learn as a child. Indeed, one friend first recognized of her own autism while trying to coach her autistic son through these lessons and remembering her own childhood confusion. "People told me not to lie, when they lied all the time. It was so confusing."

Animals don't lie, at least we don't think they do. Yes, they deceive -- that's what things like camouflage are all about -- but lying appears to be a product of language. We know one thing to be true, yet speak words that indicate something else. There are those who assert that lying is always wrong, that even those "little" pro-social lies are the moral equivalent making others into mere tools toward achieving our own dishonest ends. It's an extreme position to take, however, one that is certain to result in social ostracism. The relentlessly honest person is just as miserable to be around as the habitual liar. 

And as social animals, we are driven to be included, and to do so, we must learn to walk the line between honesty and being a jerk. This is why, at the end of the day, most of us, most of the time, hold kindness as a higher moral value than truth. Of course, there are times when only the truth will do, when it is the only moral way forward, and we should err on the side of truth when in doubt, but kindness also lives equally in those little lies we do and must tell. 


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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