Exactly How Bad Is Lying? or, Even Better than the Real Thing

By Shannon

Last week Halen came home with a note from his Arabic teacher that was written at the bottom of a note he had written to her. It read,

“Dear Miss Haifa,

“One day when I came home from school I saw my baby sister tearing my notebook apart. I tried to pull it away but that just tore the notebook into smithereens. So I threw it away.

“Signed, Halen.”
I’m not sure that Miss Haifa knows what “smithereens” are, but she seemed to get the gist of the idea: that Halen had lost his notebook and didn’t want to take the blame for it. When I confronted Halen about the note, he insisted that the story was true. “Halen,” I sighed, “Tess has never ripped anything to smithereens. Ever.”

“Reeeeeeeeeally?” Halen asked, in his best skeptical tone.

“Really.” I answered, in my best staunch tone.

He rolled his eyes.

“Buddy,” I continued, “why did you lie to Miss Haifa about this?”

Halen was silent for a minute as he mulled over his options. Finally he came clean: “Because I just wanted to tell Miss Haifa what happened in a more dramatic way. It’s so boring to say that I just can’t find it anymore.”

“In the future, Halen, I expect you to tell the boring old truth. No more drama like this, okay?”

“Ohhhhkay, Mom.”
This dog demonstrates that drama does not necessarily imply truth, because he didn't end up ripping the baby to smithereens.
The lecture was nearly over but for a final parting statement. I nodded, “Remember, Leavitts don’t lie.” But then, glancing at Halen's dad and realizing that my boy might see through this moral, I added a quick “—to their teachers. . . . Or their parents.”

The truth is that the truth is complicated—especially when you live in a place where rules are often inconsistent, short sighted, inadequate, and unenforced (are they actually rules if no one follows or enforces them?). So there are times when we are out in the hinterlands when we lie, right in front of our kids.

There, now you know.

When we’re out in the wilderness in Saudi Arabia, for instance, we tell the kids to claim Canada as their home country if strangers express curiosity. Everybody loves Canadians, but not everybody loves Americans. No need to ignite irrational violence in the odd political extremist, eh?

Father Abraham seemed to have understood this principle. He had no qualms about deceiving his neighbors about his true relationship to his wife. No need to ignite lust-born violence in the odd libidinous tyrant, right? Abraham was a good man of good character even though not all his statements were strictly truthful.

When I was a kid, our church group spent an entire year on the theme "I Believe in Being Honest." I don't remember discussing any of the contradictory Old Testament stories that year. Things were framed in black and white, which left a lot of scenarios out of the picture. But honestly (really), I think that's a good tactic with young children. To make sense of their world and to set themselves up for a respectably lived life, they need to perceive appropriate behavior as being defined by clear boundaries. It's easier to construct a good life when you've consciously accepted an honor code than to live a good life in the absence of an honor code.

But as the kids gain a little life experience and sophistication they can start to make appropriate sense of ambiguity. They can learn that being honest is a general principle of morality rather than an unbending one.

Recently we read the story of Jacob and Esau. At the part where Rebecca tells her son Jacob he needs to take Esau’s blessing for his own, my kids gasped (I know that sounds totally 19th-century, but I'm not even exaggerating; they were completely invested in the story for once). When Isaac suspiciously told Jacob that his voice didn’t sound like Esau’s, my six-year-old hid under her blanket. Then, when Jacob boldly declared himself to be Esau, my eleven-year-old protested: “But that’s a lie!”

I smiled, pleased that she had picked up on the anachronism. Then it was her turn to smile when I explained the irony that Jacob indeed did something bad (he lied) to bring about something good (receiving the blessing that Esau did not deserve). The concept blew the kids’ minds—that you actually should sometimes do something “bad” if it brings about a greater good. I gave them numerous other examples in scripture, history, and our own family where this principle has played out. I hope it was enough to clarify a principle that can be very difficult to understand.

They dug it.

But the teaching won't end there, of course. A principle like this needs guidelines, or it leaves a kid exposed to slippery slopes of all descriptions. It's not difficult to tell an innocent or socially expected lie that snowballs into a very difficult situation. That's where good character and regular self-reflection come in. Robust religious practices and a strong family culture should foster both of those pursuits. These two elements are critical to a society that cannot afford to lose its members to life's slippery slopes.