The Truth About Lying

You’ve tried to teach your children that it’s wrong to lie. That honesty is the best policy. That you won’t be mad about the juice pooling around your iPhone as long as someone tells you the truth.Lying (1)

Here’s the truth: your children are going to lie to you.

Don’t get too upset. After all, let’s be honest: honesty is not always the best policy.

You don’t really want them to tell the truth when their little sister says, “How do you like my picture?” And you don’t really want them to tell the truth when Aunt Sylvia asks them isn’t the Lego Star Wars Jedi Interceptor just perfect even through what they really wanted was the Lego Star Wars X-Wing Starfighter. TM.

Oh, but you think, that’s just being polite. They wouldn’t lie if it were important.

Except you would want them to lie if you were hiding Jews in your garage and the Nazis came knocking, right?

Oh, but you think, it’s always OK to lie to Nazis. They wouldn’t lie to me.

I’m going to be straight with you here. You probably think that in no way do you resemble Nazis. But in one way you do. You are the authoritarian government under which your children live. You control the food, the car, the daily schedule, even time itself. They get to pick out what color socks they wear only if you grant them sock selection privileges.

What do they get to control? The space between their brains and their mouths. That’s pretty much it. Lying is one of the few defenses the powerless have against power. And you, my friends, are the power.

So don’t be surprised if one day you say, “Did you do your homework?” and your son says, “yes,” and then it turns out . . . he didn’t. Don’t be surprised: Be proud. After all, he had to learn how to do that.

When my eldest was in first grade, he brought a note home from school. “Noah had a much better day today,” it read. Um, better than what, Noah? A previous, less positive missive from the teacher had been deposited in the trash on the school bus, a fact we discovered because my husband asked, “Where did you put the other note?” and Noah was too dumb to say, “What other note?”

He got smarter, mastering the beginner-level “Yes, I did my piano practice,” and moving on to the slightly more complex, “I was just checking the time” that accompanies the swift return of his cell phone to the coffee table. I’m pretty sure he’s lying. Am I mad? Yes, because that means he has likely broken my laws—I mean, my rules.

But the lying itself just makes sense. The poor kid has a mother who, at the slightest provocation, will stride up to him, take his phone right out of his hand, and hide it in her sock drawer. He has to be able to defend himself. So he has learned to build ramparts of deception to keep me at bay.

Some are hastily formed, some carefully wrought, some touchingly transparent. All lies.

And then after a long, long time, and much too soon, he will escape my regime. My power will evaporate. Even my usefulness will be reduced to emailing a recipe and remembering the name of that first grade teacher.

The question is, will he lie to me then? Will yours lie to you?

“We wish we could be there for your birthday, Mom, but little Mitzy’s allergies are acting up again. No, no, she’ll be fine; we just can’t travel.”

“Oh, yes, Mom, little Mitzy absolutely loves the Lego Hunger Games Arena with Rotating Cornucopia.”

“The piano? Yes, of course, Mom, she practices every day.”

Ramparts of deception that keep us at bay.

That’s what lies do—even well-intentioned ones—they create distance between us.

Right now, on any given day, I would like to put an ocean and a couple of European countries between myself and my children, but to imagine them distancing themselves emotionally from me when they are grown and gone is, well, a little heartbreaking.

So I’m trying to teach them not to lie. Don’t misunderstand: they should know how to, and I accept that they will as long as they are the powerless subjects of a capricious overlord.

But still they need to know that the only way to be truly close to someone is to take down the ramparts. To tell the truth.

That’s why I try never to lie to them. I won’t tell them it’s “rice” if it’s really farro. I won’t tell them the cat went to heaven when we all know where that damned cat was really headed. And I won’t tell them I love their pictures unless I mean it.

The truth, however unpleasant, is a sign of respect. A mark of trust. A precondition of closeness.

So I’m crossing my fingers that one day I’ll say, “Noah, how do you like my essay?” and instead of saying, “It was great,” Noah will look up from his cell phone and reply, “I don’t know, Mom. There were some good parts. But don’t you think the ending was a little abrupt?”

♦ ♦ ♦

I wrote this for a reading held by the Pine Hills Review on August 10. The theme: Bullshit.  Thanks to Dan Nester for the invitation, which inspired me to write about one of my favorite subjects. 


  1. Hope you were lying about where you hide the phone. If Noah read this, now he knows. But you can’t lie to your kids. Hmmmm….. big problem, Kate.

  2. I liked the essay, loved the abrupt ending, and was fascinated that Noah’s
    imaginary daughter you named Mitzy.

  3. Regarding lies and closeness, see James Agee’s review of Chaplin’s MONSIEUR VERDOUX. I also liked the abrupt

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