So it's all right to lie then - right?

23:08, Dec 11 2012

Recent survey results have raised a vexing question. Have I, as a parent, contributed to raising a generation with the morals of alley-cats?

A Colman Brunton study has found young New Zealanders aged under 30, but heavily weighted toward 18-to- 21-year-olds, cheerfully confess to cheating, lying and stealing.

Survey leader Spencer Willis described the level of dishonesty as shockingly high, while most of the participants thought their behaviour and ethics were OK.

The ready retort of "blame the parents" has seen me questioning whether I have done wrong.

Have I been a good role model? Have I been economical with the truth? Have I blurred the distinctions? And have I then rationalised like crazy?

Well, yes, yes, yes and yes.


The rot starts early.

I have lied about Father Christmas and the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy.

I prefer to think of this as nurturing the magic of childhood and creating positive memories.

My biggest porky was inspired by the tooth fairy, when my son's first baby tooth flipped out while brushing and clattered irretrievably down the plug hole.

At first inconsolable, the wee chap was eventually pacified by my imaginative story about how the tooth fairy could transform herself into the tiniest little fairy you never could see, and had adapted to the problems posed by modern plumbing, and had undoubtedly faced this particular challenge before, and would respond to a note by the empty egg cup by the bed providing directions to the missing tooth.

Technically, all lies. But lies born of kindness.

Then we went through a phase of needing to extend the children's vocabulary, and develop their general ability to distinguish fantasy from dishonesty.

I was taken aback when they both told me that fairytales were lies.

From an adult perspective, this black-and-white judgment seemed rather severe.

Stories that are made up to entertain, to help people understand things about the world that are hard to explain, are not lies.

They might not be true, necessarily. But that does not make them a lie.

You see how we start heading down a slippery slope?

Then there are the things we leave out, the lying by omission.

If we skip over the details of a relative's illness, if we don't explain the process of embalming, if we are creative in our answers to "where did I come from?" that is not lying.

That is providing age-appropriate information, and generally protecting them from things that would worry or frighten them, that they are powerless to do anything about.

But then, we expect them to get it when we demand honesty from them.

Why would we be surprised if a child failed to tell us about a piece of bad behaviour at school because they did not want to disappoint us? Or just did not want to get into even more trouble?

To overcome that kind of mimicry we need to further explain the shades of grey.

We tell them there is never anything so bad that they can't tell, and they should tell, because they are the little people who should not be making decisions about when to be less than honest, because that's the grown-ups' job. Oh dear.

So we start teaching them the art of rationalising.

And some of the "lying" uncovered in the survey does rather fall into the compartment of tact and wanting to avoid hurting someone's feelings.

If I'd been completing the survey, I would not have said that telling someone they looked nice today, when they didn't, was a lie. It was simply expressing an opinion that was not honestly held. And looking good is rarely a matter of fact.

Another surprise in my children's comprehension of the lie was when I sometimes made a mistake.

"You said you would be here after school. You were late. You lied."

Indignant, I explained to them the difference between the broken promise and the lie.

The one distinction they did seem to draw for themselves was about keeping a confidence - the lying by omission offence.

They both had an instinct for the times when you do not tell the whole truth, when it is not your business to pass on what someone else has said, in short, when not to gossip, even if, under pressure, interrogation or torture, a deflecting lie is required to protect that third party.

That's not about keeping a naughty secret, although sometimes it could be. It's more about respecting someone's privacy. It takes maturity and integrity.

Growing up in a media-soaked household, the children could not avoid noticing that the truth is important. It is something we spend our working days searching for among other people's twists and deflections and packaging.

When you find it, truth is a powerful weapon. It can be used to hurt, to destroy, to embarrass.

It is a weapon we need to wield with some compassion.

There we have it. Lies can be OK. The young people are right.

Manawatu Standard