For 6 months or so, one of my ancient chihuahua’s eyes has been on the fritz. Then a few days ago, that eye went murky and red with blood and Chip started hiding under the bed. I was able to rationalize not taking him to the emergency vet on Christmas day. The following day, Chip was still moping around and I had no choice but to drag him to our regular vet with both my young daughters in tow.
The main reason this horrible journey is at all feasible with 2 kids is because the vet’s waiting room kindly offers an unlimited supply of Otis Spunkmeyer cookies. I think between the three of us, my toddler, baby, and I ate 4 (though we definitely could have kept going).
I had to take Chip back for a followup 2 days later. Thankfully, this was enough lead time to arrange a sitter. As usual, I told my 3-year old where I was going: “gotta take Chip back to the dog doctor.”
Naturally, she asked me for cookies — “the very chocolate cookies.” I promised to bring back a double chocolate cookie for her and even semi-intended to bring a sandwich bag for carrying it.
I was about halfway home from the followup appointment, walking briskly in the rain with an unhappy dog-in-bag under my arm, when I realized I’d forgotten the cookie for my toddler. Completely without mental effort, I decided to tell her they were all out of cookies at the vet. Right before I walked into my apartment, I reminded myself of my plan but developed second thoughts. Why was my very first impulse to lie?
It’s just not plausible that I lied for her sake, in order to spare my daughter’s feelings. After all, a toddler without a cookie is still a toddler without a cookie. Rather, I didn’t want her to be mad at me in particular, I didn’t want to deal with those emotions. And pulling one over on a little kid is pretty easy most of the time.
You don’t have to tell the truth ALL of the time
Maybe the truth has some intrinsic value. And yet there are clearly at least a few times when it’s morally acceptable or even obligatory to lie (cough murderer at the door cough). To live alongside other humans, we mostly tell the truth and require special justifications for occasional, compelling lies. Why?
The reason to default towards truth-telling isn’t given by objective moral truth or the fabric of reality. Instead, the reason to default towards truth-telling is given by human nature.
But you do have to tell the truth MOST of the time
You, the person with greater information, are necessarily the one deciding whether to share that information. But you are poorly placed to determine whether you’re acting out of expediency, self-interest, or genuine moral concern. Self-deception (on this, and everything) is closer to a rule than an exception.
Maybe one time in 10 you really have others’ genuine good in mind when you lie. The other times, you’re just doing something base: avoiding blame, making things easier for yourself, etc. Getting in the habit of lying is what turns you into a liar.
I think of the mom in Target the other day who told her crop of elementary school-aged kids that they have a policy of 1 toy per kid or they’ll be asked to leave the store. Was she always like that? Does she lie through her teeth to her husband and friends to keep them off her back, too?
We should especially default towards truth-telling with our kids, because lying mostly just kicks the can down the road. If you don’t figure out how to navigate potentially unpleasant/upsetting/disappointing conversations with your toddler, how do you think it’s going to go with your teenager?
This does not mean you have to tell kids things they aren’t emotionally prepared to hear. It just means saying true things rather than false ones. Communicating with children is sometimes tough. But you can get help and you can get better.
You can always choose to tell a truth
I hoped that my daughter would forget about the cookie. But the second I opened our apartment door, she heard me and popped around the corner, saucer-like shiny toddler eyes hopefully ablaze, and asked about it first thing.
I ended up telling her the truth: that I’d simply forgotten to bring her the cookie. I apologized and offered her a different cookie that we had at home.
First, she insisted that she wanted the cookie from the vet. I explained and apologized again. She wolfed down the replacement and went on her way.
It could have gone worse, there could have been tears. I could have lied about the vet being out of cookies, and still caused a tantrum! What a lose-lose.
But, even at age 3, my daughter knows that promises are sometimes broken and that people make mistakes. You don’t have to like it, but you do have to live with it. I hope we can handle disappointing each other in this way far into the future. Squashing the impulse to lie, rather than to face tough feelings, can help.
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