I’ve read a couple of articles lately admonishing parents not to tell little white lies in front of their kids, for fear that they will learn that lying is acceptable. I not only tell some falsehoods in front of my kids, but I also teach them that it’s OK if they have to do it themselves. For the record, I do believe in honesty. I think lying and cheating for personal gain are deplorable. I often tell the utter, complete truth, even when it will make me look bad or make my life harder. But I’m not always 100%, brutally honest, and I teach my children that they don’t need to be either.
As important as honesty is, there are four times that it’s not preferable to be completely honest.
To protect yourself.
I lie to panhandlers all the time. My policy is to tell them I have no cash even if I do. The bottom line is that I don’t want to give them money, but I’m not going to tell them that because they are invading my personal space and making me feel uncomfortable and unsafe. Making an excuse is a quick way to get out of a scary situation. Maybe they don’t want to be lied to, but I don’t want to be approached in a dark parking lot either.
To protect your privacy.
Often, I have my kids tell their friends I told them they can’t play, when really they just don’t want to. My son has suffered from crippling anxiety since he was preschool age. He feels guilty telling people no, and he often needs alone time. So I told him that if he’s too anxious to play with friends, it’s OK to blame it on mom. It’s nicer to tell a friend “my mom says I can’t play right now,” than to say, “I don’t want to be around you right now.” Besides, not many kids would understand the anxiety explanation and not poke fun of it.
When it’s not helpful.
If I’m being completely honest, I would tell you that sometimes my kids get on my nerves. But I wouldn’t dare tell them that. It’s mean. And it’s not the least bit helpful. If they are doing something rude or excessively annoying I’ll address that specific behavior so they learn how to act in public. But if their incessant singing isn’t quite on key or they’re just running around telling obnoxious jokes that are a little too unfunny, I leave it be. I even pretend it sounds great, and that they are hilarious. Because to do otherwise would not be helpful.
When it will hurt someone’s feelings.
My son came home from an activity one night and told me that a younger boy had wanted to play basketball with their group, but an older boy said, “Aw man! We don’t want him!” My son called the older boy out on how mean it was for him to say that, especially right in front of the kid who wanted to play. But he just responded with, “It’s better than saying it behind his back.”
I definitely don’t condone talking about people behind their back, but I certainly don’t want hurtful things said right to someone’s face. To me, that’s worse. Both are unkind, but saying it to their face shows a completely callous disregard for their feelings. My son made a good point when he said, “If you say something behind someone’s back, you feel bad. But if you say it to their face, you BOTH feel bad.” Absolutely right. And I would add that just because something is true doesn’t mean you should say it.
It’s OK to spin the truth to soften a blow. When my kids show me a picture I ALWAYS tell them I like it. Technically this is true. I like it because they made it. It’s a creation made by my offspring, so I like it. Even if I have no idea what it is. I tell my kids to compliment each other’s artwork so as not to hurt each other’s feelings. I tell them, “if you don’t like it, find SOMETHING you do like about it. Find something nice to say.” It’s more important to be kind than to be purely honest. Being a good, pure person is noble, but not at the expense of being kind. If you’re an honest jerk, is that really noble?
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s better to stand on the moral high ground and be perfectly honest no matter the consequences. But personally, I think it’s more important to protect the feelings of others and protect yourself than to always tell the complete truth.