The world is awash in lies. There are the big humdingers and the tiny fibs. They can be white, black or anything in between. They lead to war, destroy the peace and hurt about everyone in their reach. Yet we all do it. We may not all be in a position that by our lying we contribute to the deaths of the innocent, but our misspeaking and exaggerations of the truth do add up. We may not be official politicians, but we ordinary folks spin enough on our own to get dizzy.
For me it was not the whoppers but the "I'll be right home" or the "I'm leaving now," "there was a lot of traffic, that's why I'm late." After each "I'll be right home," I invariably would finish another chart or two or even go through a few more papers before I was "leaving now." The "I will be there in 20 minutes" was never 20 minutes; at times it was no longer measured in minutes but hours. It was these excuses, which were really lies, that weaken us and make us dishonest in spite of our perceived moral standing in the community.
It is the frequent lies that we tell our children that I worry most about. It is the separated father who says he will call or will be by to pick up his children for his visitation time and doesn't call or doesn't show up. The damage that these kinds of lies do to the children is as visible on their faces as bruises from being slapped repeatedly. But the children want that connection so badly they will absorb the emotional hits and beg for that call and the hoped-for visit.
"I'll be right there" is said often to a child in need, but by the time the help arrives the child has learned not to trust the author of the tale.
Lying occurs for the same number of reasons there are liars, but self-preservation is probably one of the most common explanations. Children lie about homework to protect themselves from not having it, not understanding it or for feeling like they can't do it. If kids are intimidated by parents or are afraid, it makes sense to say what you know your authority figures want to hear. Doing well in school, acing all the grades, attending all their classes, or avoiding more serious health issues or self-destructive behaviors are all topics we want to hear. So part of the answer to lying is to teach courage to say the painful truth and to learn to converse with our children when they are stressed. Reducing fear reduces lying. Increasing conversation increases security and reduces the need to lie.
One of the nicest things my youngest said to me came after smashing the car windshield while filming a crash scene with a friend jumping onto the hood of the car: "I knew I could trust you." For once, I did the right thing by not getting angry, and I said all the right things. "Are you OK?" "Was your friend hurt?" "Did you get some good shots?" The panic he felt in doing something that could have been serious was allayed by truthfulness. He had backed the car into the garage so his mother wouldn't see the destroyed windshield, so the truth would have to come out eventually, but it was nice to know at least this time I didn't promote a lie.So unless we all plan to continue lying through our teeth, we had better make certain we start doing what we say. It is the doers of their word who are the doers in business, community and at home. It is the small truths that are told a thousand times that make the difference. Lenin was wrong about a lot of stuff but he was especially not being honest when he said that a lie told often enough becomes a truth. But then again he was a politician.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for more than 25 years and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.