From The Men They
Eli H. Newberger, M.D.
Chapter 11 - HONESTY
The father of a nine-year-old
boy told me that he returned from an overseas business trip this
year carrying a joint of marijuana in his luggage. One of his business
hosts abroad, wanting to show the utmost hospitality—drug consumption
is widespread in their industry—had put the joint in his houseguest's
bedroom as an amenity, much as hotel staff might leave a chocolate
treat on a pillow. Back home, the father put the joint in the top
drawer of his bureau at home, and forgot about it. A week later,
the drawer was open one morning as he dressed for work while his
son was in the room. His son saw the joint, picked it up, and asked, "What's
"It caught me off guard.
I've thought a lot about drugs, and what I'll say to him when he's
thirteen or fourteen. Basically, I plan to tell him honestly about
my experience with drugs as a teenager, but I'm going to tell him
that times have changed a lot since then, and what was okay for me
at fourteen isn't okay for him at fourteen."
"What did you say to
your son about the joint?" I asked. "Oh, I said it was
a hand-rolled cigarette that I had been offered at a business dinner
and kept as a curiosity:' He went on to tell me about other male
friends of his who consumed drugs extensively as adolescents, and
who intend to lie if their own children ever ask them whether they
consumed drugs when they were boys.
This man obviously wanted
to preserve a certain moral clout with his son when they inevitably
will have to address the subject of drugs in a few years. (One could
argue that the subject is timely even for nine-year-olds these days.)
He said he wanted to be able to say, "I did it then, but I don't
do it now, and I don't want you to do it because drugs are so much
more dangerous now. They were dangerous even when I was a kid, but
I was lucky. Now I know more about drugs. I want you to know what
I know, because you might do what I did and not be as lucky as I
Perhaps if the father hadn't
been caught by surprise and wasn't in a hurry to get to work, he
could have handled his son's discovery and question more truthfully,
using it as an opening to the subject of drugs that all parents should
begin to discuss with schoolboys. Impulsively, he evaded the subject
with a partial truth. He misled his son in the service of what he
saw as his responsibility to protect his son from harmful exposure
to drugs. He didn't want his son to be able to justify his own possible
consumption of drugs by saying: My dad does it, why shouldn't I?
Varieties of Dishonesty
Honesty, which at first
glance looks like one of the simpler topics to be dealt with in character-building,
is actually one of the most complex—as even this mundane father-son
incident shows. Ethicists often assume that honesty is the obvious
policy of choice except for extreme cases in which lying, or one
of its related avoidances of the truth, might be morally justifiable—for
example, should a soldier captured in battle tell his captors false
information about the deployment and strategies of his own army,
or should a physician tell a terminally ill and deeply depressed
patient what he knows and estimates to be the patient's condition
and life expectancy if the patient asks. Extreme examples, however,
don't necessarily help us make wise choices in commonplace situations.
The ambiguity of dishonesty
is that much of it is habitual and scarcely recognized. You could
ask a copywriter for an advertising agency if he is aware that much
of what he writes is, at best, distortion, and he will probably resist
the characterization; he is just doing "marketing:' You can
ask the preacher or speechwriter if he realizes that many of his
generalizations wouldn't stand up to close factual scrutiny—though
they sound appealing—and he will say that he is just conveying
political or philosophical truth. So a boy grows up in a culture
where there is pervasive dishonesty but yet occasions when truth-telling
is, perhaps without warning, regarded as terribly important.
The corrosive effects of
lies between adults are frequently celebrated in contemporary literature.
A review of a recent novel says of one of the characters: "Klima
(the novelist) reminds us that Hana, too, is to be considered. She
has found out, by chance, that her husband has a lover, and in the
goodness of her heart she truly forgives him. But she weeps because
he has deceived her, and she doesn't know whether she'll ever believe
Everyday life is seldom
quite as clear as fictional life, but adults in real life do generally
know that exposed lies between partners are going to have lasting
effects. This knowledge doesn't always inhibit adults from lying
to their intimates, but they rarely defend the lying itself. They
will rationalize it away if they can, but they rarely say that it's
really OK to lie to an intimate.
In my talks with parents,
however, I've met quite a few who have no reservations about lying
to their children. What about? Most often, about their own pasts,
and about subjects that intrinsically make them uncomfortable. I've
learned of children who do not know that one of their parents was
married—and, in some cases, had children—before entering
the marriage to which these children were born.
The tree of dishonesty has
a number of separate branches. There is the branch of equivocation—deliberately
using ambiguous or unclear expressions, intending to mislead. This
is what the aforementioned father was doing. It was true that the
object in the bureau was a hand-rolled cigarette; what he was falsely
implying was that it contained ordinary tobacco. There is a branch
called duplicity—speaking in two different and mutually
contradictory ways about the same subject to different parties, intending
to deceive one or both. Another branch is called distortion—willfully
twisting something out of its true meaning. And there is lying—knowingly
telling something one believes is false with the intent that the
hearer will believe it is true. Boys are capable of doing all of
these, if they choose, at quite young ages. None of these branches
of dishonesty is to be confused with innocent errors. All of us say
things that we believe to be true only to discover later that we
were wrong. A large place has to be reserved in everyday life for
unintentional errors—for misconceptions and misperceptions.
Just as dishonesty has many
branches, so honesty has many limitations or qualifications that
keep the subject from being one of those "night and day"
simplicities. Let me mention a few.
What is true—and therefore
what one might try to communicate honestly or obscure dishonestly—is
influenced by one's perspective. One of the most fascinating studies
of perspective was done by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. None other
than Albert Einstein requested the study. Einstein's theory of relativity,
unlike the reigning Newtonian physics, in which velocity was defined
as distance divided by time, posited that time and velocity are defined
in terms of each other. Einstein wanted to know if children are born
with innate notions of time and velocity, and how their first notions
of one affect their learning of the other.
Piaget had four- and five-year-olds
observe two toy trains running on parallel tracks. Which train, he
asked each young observer, traveled faster? Which ran the longer
time? Which went the longer distance? Most of the children said that
the train that stopped ahead of the other train was the faster, took
longer, and went the greater distance (the trains did not necessarily
begin at the same point). Focusing on the stopping points, they ignored
all other evidence. They could deal with only one dimension. From
the perspective of children, the relations between two or more variables
such as time, speed, and distance are more difficult to perceive
than they are for adults.
In another experiment, Piaget
seated four-year-olds around a play table on which sat a model of
three mountains. The children were shown photographs of how the model
looked from the perspectives of the other children ranged around
the table. Could the children see differences between the photographs
and what they saw from their chairs? No. For most four-year-olds,
it was impossible. Preschoolers can't see the world from the perspective
of others; they think theirs is the only possible viewpoint.
The answer to Einstein,
delivered in five hundred pages of text, was that these concepts
aren't inborn; distance, time, and velocity aren't comprehended in
relation to each other until the school years, generally after the
age of six.
Preschoolers are already
capable of saying what they think will please the listener, whether
or not what they say is true. When David Parker was five years old,
and his brother, Jason, was four, their mother found a nearly empty
bottle of children's liquid aspirin on the bathroom floor one Saturday
morning about a year ago. She knew that both boys liked the cherry
flavoring when they had tasted it in past doses to quell fevers;
and she knew that the bottle had been more than three-quarters full
when she last used it.
Panicked, Angela Parker
confronted her sons with the empty bottle and asked who had drunk
the aspirin. She had good cause to be alarmed. Overdoses of aspirin
can cause major damage to the liver or heart or brain. In sufficient
quantity, an overdose can be lethal.
"I didn't do it:' David
said. "I didn't do it:' Jason said. "One of you had to
have done it," Angela shouted. "The bottle was almost full.
Now it's empty. Taking too much aspirin could make you very, very
sick. Now, which one of you drank it?" The combination of her
anxiety and scare tactics had no useful effect. Both boys reiterated
their claims of innocence; they both began to accuse the other of
having done it!
Knowing that she needed
to treat promptly whichever son had drunk the aspirin, Angela made
both David and Jason swallow a dose of Ipecac syrup to induce vomiting.
The pink coloration from the aspirin showed up only in the contents
of Jason's stomach.
The limitations that we
see in preschoolers' capacity to deal with perspective and with truth
is even more evident in toddlers. Stanley Cath has written up a study
of how one intelligent mother, who kept a journal, dealt over a period
of years with her son's absent father. The woman and her husband
divorced before Jeff was born, and while the father paid a few visits
to his son in his first months of life, those visits had ceased entirely
before Jeff was two years old; by that age, Jeff was able to articulate
his awareness that he didn't have what most of his playmates had:
is my daddy? Why doesn't he stay here the way the other daddies
we are divorced, and he lives somewhere else.
is 'divorced' mean?
when two people get married, they find out that they didn't love
each other and would be happier living apart or being married to
someone else. The divorce was between your father and myself, and
you had nothing to do with it. Your father wants you to be very
happy, just as I do.
he live far away from here?
very far away, but he lives away from here.
he come to see us?
we both thought that since we would be happier living apart, it
would be better to start again. That is why I date, so we can find
a man we will love, and who will love us. You can kind of pick
your own daddy, won't that be fun?
Karen (his cousin) and Janie (a neighbor's child) pick out their
but your other friend, Louise, can pick out her daddy because her
parents are divorced, too.
Jeff raised the subject
endlessly in what his mother referred to as the "father question
hour:' His mother is, to a degree, cloaking the indifference of Jeff's
biological father to his son, and slightly exaggerating the significance
of Jeff's role in her choosing a new partner, though she is clear
in her mind that a new partner would have to win Jeff's confidence
(she relates with humor how Jeff drove one suitor away). With his
two-year-old sense of concreteness, Jeff decided his father was living
on the train tracks.
Eventually Jeff asked about
living with his father: Why didn't he live with him? His mother answered:
"Aren't you happy living with me?" She writes:
Then, pulling my emotions
together for the time being, I added to that overly sensitive,
guilt-ridden question of mine, 'Also, Jeff, your father works all
day and mothers usually take care of the children.' Jeff said,
'I want to live with you, all of us together, I mean.' I would
venture to say this conversation was not exactly my finest hour!
Inside I was screaming (to myself). Here I was, left alone with
the child, to explain why he can't see his father; left to make
excuses. I knew I wouldn't hurt Jeff that badly to tell him that
his father just couldn't care. And yet, I couldn't be a martyr,
and take all the blame my son would most understandably place on
me. I had to learn that nothing I could say would be the right
thing, because Jeff was not in a right or normal situation. But
I could say the wrong thing! Somehow, I had to find a middle ground
where I could be honest with Jeff, without deliberately hurting
him or his opinion of himself. I would try to have us live together
with as little resentment as possible.
Honesty here has to take
account of a dilemma: Jeff knows fully of his father's indifference
to him, he will be wounded. But if he doesn't know of it, he will
blame his mother for his father's absence because she is present
and available to play his feelings against. She is subordinating
what she decides to say about Jeff's father to the greater value
of minimizing resentment between herself and her son. I like her
statement that she is searching for a middle ground that contains
honesty but other considerations as well.
Honesty among older children
and adults is deeply influenced by their various motives in the same
way that the toddler or preschooler is motivated to say what he thinks
will please or to avoid saying what he thinks will displease. To
avoid shame, for example, adolescents or adults addicted to alcohol
or drugs may resolutely deny their problems in the face even of overwhelming
The older we get, the more
opportunity we have to see the subtleties of honesty and dishonesty.
We come to see the difference between literal and figurative truth—to
see that a phrase like "I'll do it in a minute" is probably
literally untruthful but what we really meant was a metaphorical "I'll
do it in a short while." Youngsters of literal mind who are
impatient with our "in a minute" promises sometimes begin
to count the seconds aloud.
We also come to see that
many things are open to interpretation, depending on needs, interests,
and perspectives. The cynical word these days is "spin"
for the activity of putting forth an interpretation as much in one's
self interest as possible; some people are acknowledged to be spin-masters.
But cynicism aside, it's hard to deny the frequency with which we appeal
for readings of events sympathetic to our own situation. An aware adult
will be compelled to acknowledge the legitimacy of others' doing the
We all construct our own
versions of reality and try to get others to adopt them or at least
accommodate them. So one person's truth differs inevitably from another's.
Some distortion of truth, or of what we best believe to be true,
helps most of us manage to cope in the world. In her book, Lying,
Sissela Bok—who makes a strong case for eliminating as much
burdensome dishonesty and deception from our lives as we can—nevertheless
quotes Emily Dickinson on the subject of honesty:
Tell all the truth
but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to our Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—
Unless the truth comes to
us gently or obliquely, and in moderate doses, we can't always tolerate
it. It blinds us like lightning. We need truth to be circuitous,
on the slant.
Lessons from the Law
If truth is open to conflicting
perspectives and claims, then what is left of the character trait
of honesty? Has our subject dissolved in a sea of relativism?
I don't think so. For a
moment, I'd like to look at the way honesty is dealt with in one
of our central institutions, judicial courts. Truthfulness is so
important to the courtroom that testimony is usually given after
the taking of a solemn oath to be truthful; demonstrated dishonesty
under oath, or perjury, is itself subject to penalties. Our judicial
systems are far from up to date on their understandings of how truth
is subject to perspectives and other qualifications. Cases are still
put to juries to decide adversarial proceedings one way or the other "beyond
a reasonable doubt." Many of us can scarcely imagine a situation
that didn't contain at least one reasonable doubt. Courts also overestimate
the reliability of human memory. Yet in spite of these faults, courts
have a very sophisticated way of dealing with honesty.
Five separate safeguards
to truth-telling in court have tremendous relevance, I believe, for
other situations such as family life or school affairs. They all
have as their purpose maintaining respect for every person, no matter
what that person has done.
First, the law gives a person
the right to remain silent rather than to testify truthfully to what
might be detrimental to the person's perceived self-interest. Lots
of people, including lots of children, lie or equivocate or distort
because they can't bring themselves to tell the truth, and they haven't
been given the option to remain silent; they have been pressured
to speak up, maybe threatened with punishment for silence alone.
What a difference it would make in family life if a boy could elect
silence as an honorable choice rather than as an act of stubborn
Second, the burden of proof
in court usually falls to the party doing the complaining—to
the plaintiff in a civil action or the prosecutor in a criminal procedure.
All the party in the defensive position has to do is raise a substantial
enough measure of doubt about the validity of the complaint. The
method in court is to look into the complaint at a rather plodding
pace, sorting out the conflicting testimony and evidence in search
of a verdict.
Many episodes in domestic
life have the opposite dynamic: The person accused is expected to
defend his complete innocence; the presumption in many family "hearings"
is that the accused child or partner is guilty unless he can demonstrate
otherwise. An angry child who is skilled in histrionics can often get
a sibling summarily convicted and punished by unthinking adults.
Third, the law goes to considerable
lengths to inform a person of what the potential consequences might
be of telling the truth, especially of admitting to wrongdoing or
negligence. The defendant thus knows what the potential range of
punishments or sanctions is before deciding whether or not to be
truthful. (Often this safeguard is realized by providing counsel,
someone who can inform the defendant of the best way to defend himself.
Competent counsel educates the client about the law.)
Again, this element is missing
in countless domestic situations in which an annoyed or impatient
or enraged caregiver is demanding that a child tell the truth without
giving any indication of what the consequences of truth-telling might
be if the accuser's suspicions are confirmed. This is another of
the safeguards in public litigation that I would like to have applied
to other social situations at home, at school, at work.
Fourth, courtroom procedures
mandate careful distinction between what a witness knows from direct
experience and what he knows only indirectly—from hearsay,
for example. The law values fact above mere opinion. It is a distinction
often missing in everyday life. All of us, I venture, occasionally
confuse our meritorious opinions with the actual facts, which, often,
we don't really know. In the absence of fact, opinion is often sent
in to substitute.
The final safeguard of honesty
in the law is the most profound. It is that honesty is in some way rewarded.
I wish I could help every parent and teacher grasp and accept this
rule, which is so often neglected. Honesty isn't its own reward.
The reward has to be added. In the main, all that is needed is that
honesty be praised. Toddlers should always be thanked for telling
the truth, as should schoolboys and adolescents.
When honesty involves the
acknowledgment of a regrettable act, the reward may be mainly in
the form of a reduction of punishment for having owned up to the
act. Every act of truth-telling, even if what is confessed reflects
badly on the speaker, should be acknowledged as an instance of moral
courage. In other words, we should distinguish between the careful
establishment by others' testimony of a truth that the doer denies
to the bitter end, and the honest admission of a truth that the speaker
I'm not, of course, advocating
that every home and school be turned into a part-time courthouse.
What courts do with great formality—and great expense—can
be done informally but carefully in any other venue. If the safeguards
of honesty common to the courts could be more deeply incorporated
into domestic or school situations, everyone would be better off.
A sense of orderliness would replace what is now often impulsive
and hot-tempered accusation and judgment. Relatively minor incidents
would not be blown out of proportion. What I'm advocating, as I shall
discuss in more detail later, is a higher level of parental consciousness
about honesty in situations where honesty is undeniably an issue.
Before we leave analogies
between honesty in the courtroom and in everyday life, let me note
that the judicial system leans—though with some exceptions—toward
sympathy for people who have been deliberately tempted by government
officials to participate in unlawful activities. The process is called
entrapment. Life, the courts seem to say, offers more than enough
temptations without having to produce more culprits by using enticing
This concept of entrapment
has some application to child-rearing and honesty, even at a very
early age. When I asked Shannon, the mother of two toddlers, how
she dealt with honesty, she said that she is careful not to provide
temptations for her young sons to lie. For example, if she notices
that one of the boys has a soiled diaper but is fully engaged in
play, she doesn't ask him if he needs a diaper change.
"I try to make the
question perfectly clear. If I ask him whether his diaper needs changing,
we might have a difference of opinion rather than fact. If he says
'no,' he might be telling me that he knows his diaper is dirty, but
he doesn't care because his play is too much fun to be interrupted.
I also don't ask him—which is a clear question—whether
he has a soiled diaper. If he's fully engaged in play, he'll then
be tempted to lie.
"I say, 'L.J., I can
smell your dirty diaper. Do you want me to change it now or in five
minutes?' I've given him a bit of choice, I've acknowledged how important
his play is to him at that moment, but I haven't surrendered my nose
indefinitely to his whims, either. I find that with this kind of
approach we avoid many little power struggles, and I don't encourage
him to lie."
This is a very important
principle. Honesty is a demanding virtue to practice. It will not
be inspired in a young boy—or a boy of any age—by setting
up little entrapments followed by little lectures when the test is
failed. This kind of tactic can hardly help yielding a mindset in
which a boy is calculating the odds each time of being caught in
I know of a father who irreparably
damaged his relationship with his son by inquiring of his son every
day, when he carne home from work, whether the boy had been sucking
his thumb. The boy always said he hadn't; but he usually had been,
and his thumb had the telltale wrinkled skin to prove it. The father
then examined the thumb and delivered a reproachful look or lecture.
The thumb-sucking continued until the boy was at least ten years
old because the thumb was one of his main consolations for his unhappiness.
In a society like ours,
boys even in childhood are regularly in situations of being alone
or anonymous, with the odds of a lie being detected not transparently
high—unlike those of our thumb-sucker. Detection calculations,
if that is the way a boy deals with a situation, are often going
to yield a decision to lie. A more effective path is to reward every
instance of honesty that takes special courage or other virtue, establishing
honesty as an aspect of character that every person should honor
When Not to Tell the
Preschoolers, with their
somewhat inflexible sense of rules and their developmental inability
to see things from the perspectives of others, are apt to say truthful
but embarrassing things in public. You may recall the preschooler
I mentioned earlier who informed the police officer, over his father's
protestations, that the father had been trying to steal a car.
Schoolboys, however, have
begun to appreciate that the advantages of telling the truth vary
from one person's perspective to another's. Parents can begin to
discuss with schoolboys the kinds of situations when dishonesty in
the form of what we call "white lies" is appropriate. A
schoolboy asks a friend whether the schoolboy played soccer well
that afternoon. The friend doesn't really think the boy did play
well, but doesn't see any way to evade the question. If he tells
the truth, he's going to hurt his teammate's self-confidence. Is
it better to be truthful or to be reassuring? While an exaggerated
compliment may backfire, no harm is done by being reassuring. The
boy who reassures his pal with a white lie doesn't gain anything
except the satisfaction of making his teammate feel better.
Only detailed discussion
of possible situations can enable a parent and a son to refine an
understanding of when and why a white lie is appropriate and when
it is inappropriate or can be avoided by an effective and yet truthful
strategy. These discussions will be all the more compelling to a
boy if they are reciprocal—parents relating some of the situations
they have confronted when white lies seemed to them the responsible
thing to say.
From such discussions a
boy might learn to say, "I think you're a good soccer player;'
which might be true but not as true of today's game; or he might
"I think you're a good player. You didn't have your best game
today, but I'm sure you will next time," which could be both truthful
I had an early experience
of a protective lie. Shortly after my sister was born, my mother's
mother died. As if traumatized by this gain of a third child and
loss of a parent, my mother fell into the first of several episodes
of mental illness. Mental illness was more stigmatized then than
now, and I never confided my mother's illness even to my closest
friends. It's possible that some of them knew of it from other sources,
but they didn't embarrass me by mentioning it. Until my junior year
in high school, my mother suffered through, and recovered from, recurrent
stretches of depression and other symptoms at home. Then she was
hospitalized for the first time. My father instructed us children
to say, if asked, that she was spending time at a dairy farm. Since
mental illness was seen as shameful, a case could be made for protecting
my mother—and us—from public gossip.
While my siblings were perhaps
not old enough to understand, my father could have explained to me
why it made sense to protect my mother's situation. Instead, his
way of handling the situation within the family implied that he was
ashamed of my mother's condition, and, by implication, we children
should be ashamed of her, too. The lies we were instructed to tell
might be regarded by some people as inconsequential white lies, but
their effect on our family was significant: We lived as though we
had something major to hide; we lived without the solace and perhaps
the help that others might have offered us. When I think back to
the nature of the community we lived in, I think that our situation
would, if widely known, have generated sympathy and comfort.
Alcohol or drug abuse within
a family often generates a household conspiracy to lie to cover up
the situation. Sometimes the conspiracy doesn't even have to be articulated.
Everyone besides the addict notices that everyone else is ashamed;
tacitly, everyone agrees to be silent, or untruthful. Children of
separated or divorced parents frequently get drawn into the conspiracies
of one parent to hide facts known to the children from the other
parent—"I'm dating Linda now, but I don't want you to
Honesty and discretion get
confusingly intertwined in family life at times. Parents obscure
or deny certain facts about themselves or others in the family to
their children; sometimes these are facts that, if known, would damage
their children's idealized images of family members. At other times,
information is withheld because parents don't trust the children
to handle it discreetly outside the home. Their concern isn't unrealistic.
Boys may be moved to brag or confess to their peers family information
that their parents have very good reason to want to keep private.
The adults of each household
have certain rights of privacy. One of their responsibilities is
to determine what to divulge within the family about topics such
as mental and physical health, family finances, marital conflict,
job security or loss. In my clinical practice I have encountered
situations in which parents shared more discretionary information
with their children than the children could bear, creating levels
of anxiety—because there was nothing the children could do
to alter the situation—that impeded the children's development
for years, even into adulthood. But many boys are capable, even in
their school years, of handling some sensitive information if it
is explained to them why it would be important not to broadcast the
information outside the family.
Children also have significant
rights of privacy, I believe, that bear on issues of honesty. When
the appropriate privacy rights of everyone in the family are outlined
and protected, incentives to dishonesty within the family cannot
but decline. I still wince when I think of the story of a mother
who came upon her adolescent daughter's private journal. Indefensibly
heedless of her daughter's privacy, she read through the journal,
finding there expressions of the sexual feelings and fantasies the
daughter had experienced for her boyfriend. The mother confronted
her daughter with the journal and forbade her ever to date the boy
again; and I daresay the daughter learned never to trust her mother
"Abuse of truth ought
to be as much punishment as the introduction of falsehood," said
Pascal. The moral issue isn't, as one might suppose, between the
always honorable truth and the always dishonorable falsehood. Truth
can be used in a way that is profoundly inhumane. Falsehoods can
be gently and lovingly protective without any adverse side effects.
When boys reach school age,
they begin to have more complex peer relations in which many of the
incentives to dishonesty already experienced at home are confronted
but without as much adult guidance. Then, as we see, boys and girls
begin constructing separate and intertwined social structures that
by the adolescent years will be hiding as much from their parents
as their parents ever hid from them.
Honesty and Parental
The four levels of parental
awareness that we have seen earlier have bearing on the subject of
honesty. At the first level—Me First—we see my father
exhorting his children to lie if necessary to hide the fact of my
mother's illness. He might have made the same suggestion based on
a higher level of awareness—and therefore for different reasons—but
I believe he acted most of all on the basis of his own needs. What
he did, and why he did it, is more common than unusual.
The safeguards to honesty
from courtroom procedures can also be related to levels of awareness.
Courts handle conflicts between parties conducted on an adversarial
basis. People who come to court are usually preoccupied with their
own interests; they are in a Me First frame of mind. Courts work
at the second level: Follow the Rules. These rules about honesty,
contain sophisticated safeguards, but they are only rules, and rules
can't distinguish between modest dishonesty of little consequence
and lying with major consequence except by variations in punishment
once people are found guilty. In other words, courts are basically
concerned about whether you lied, not why you lied.
At the third and fourth
levels of parental consciousness, a parent becomes aware of the needs
of others and tries to act responsibly and respectfully in relation
to those needs. If my father had considered our situation at Level
Three, he would have been able to recognize his children's need to
express our fears and fantasies about our mother's illness, our need
to feel we were good children even though our mother was sick. His
strategy meant that he didn't reassure us himself even as he cut
us off from the possibility that others would reassure us.
Only at Levels Three and
Four does a parent move past concern with whether a child lied and
ask why he lied. Addressing the why usually gets to more
important issues than whether. If the why can be clarified and resolved,
the offending dishonesty will often cease. As I've indicated before,
we all carry the lower levels of awareness with us when we act in
accordance with the higher levels; we continue to feel the press
of our own needs, and we continue to acknowledge the rules that we
believe in; but we relate those factors to the needs of others and
to the relationships we have with others.
Robert Coles, in The
Moral Intelligence of Children, tells about one classroom
situation in which it was hard to find a solution because there
was no common agreement about application of the rules and the
why question was raised in a way more to try to exonerate the alleged
offender than to understand her motive. The central character of
the story was a fourth grade girl, Elaine, who excelled in the
classroom and in athletics, was popular and attractive, and lived
in solid upper-middle class comfort. She was especially admired
by her teacher, who had written a published article about Elaine's
accomplishments in math and science, subjects that boys usually
dominated in the teacher's classroom.
One day, a boy sitting beside
her reported to the teacher that Elaine was using a crib sheet on
a math test, and not for the first time. The boy had talked with
his parents about Elaine's regular cheating, and they had suggested
he discuss the matter with Elaine herself, but when he did so on
two occasions she angrily denied cheating, accused him of jealousy,
and called him a liar. The teacher acted surprised and irritated
by the boy's accusation, despite the fact that he was delivering
Elaine's crib sheet to her. She sent him back to his seat, gave him
a look he regarded as reproving; he became upset over the rebuff
and couldn't finish the test.
The boy's parents counseled
him to let the matter drop, but Elaine began boastfully to tease
him about the impossibility of his making his accusation stick. He
felt the teacher was less friendly. He became more timid, apprehensive
about the teacher's view of him. And he saw Elaine continue to cheat
in other subjects.
Eventually the whole matter
landed in the principal's lap because the boy's parents wisely felt
they had to do something to protect his feelings and situation at
school. His mother went to see the teacher, who rebuffed her for
intruding on a situation the teacher felt she should handle in her
own way without parental interference. When the teacher was unhelpful,
both parents went to the principal. Though, as we shall see, the
situation was really never resolved, the boy must have felt that
his parents gave him and his honesty invaluable support at a time
of confusion and self-doubt.
At least two other students
in the class corroborated the boy's story that Elaine had been cheating.
Before the principal, Elaine denied cheating, and suggested the boy
must have a problem of his own. The teacher was angry that others
were intruding on her classroom; she said Elaine was going through
a stressful time—a beloved grandfather was ill, and her mother,
a lawyer, had just lost a big case—and she would not acknowledge
that Elaine had cheated in class, though she eventually said she
had seen Elaine "fudge" a little in sports.
Coles, who was doing research
at the school, was pulled into the situation as it became quasi-judicial.
Gradually he felt that a problem essentially moral in nature was
being psychologized away. If Elaine had cheated and lied about it—no
one except a few of her classmates and the parents of one of them
and Coles were willing to say that the evidence was convincing—then
it must be a "psychiatric" problem rather than a moral
As happens in many such
situations, this one drifted out of focus rather than moved to resolution.
Elaine and her parents had some family counseling on subjects other
than cheating and lying. School went on. Elaine continued to excel,
but she had her doubters among her peers. She had grounds for believing
that she could continue to cheat, to lie about it if accused, with
This story is of particular
interest because our gender stereotypes suggest it might have been
the other way around: the star male student-athlete, the timid female
who catches him cheating. Coles doesn't say what became of the boy
who cried "Cheat." Yet in many schools today, where most
of the teachers are female, boys believe that their eagerness, their
competitiveness, and their sense of fair play are put down in favor
of a superior feminine standard. Also, the unnamed boy in this story
has done something impeccably honest yet often stigmatized because
there is an informal social contract against it. The contract is
to the effect that it's one thing to be caught cheating by the teacher—she
has the rule on her side—but quite another to be nailed by
a fellow student who is violating the understanding that it's us
(students) against them (teachers).
I share Coles's judgment
that it is best for everyone to confront situations such as these
promptly, to prevent them from festering until they become public
with attendant shame for the accused. While it may overstate the
case to say that the integrity of the entire class is at stake, many
students could well have taken away the wrong lesson about cheating.
The situation in Elaine's
classroom does have a moral center to it, but it also has interpersonal
dimensions that can't be ignored, and they have their moral implications,
too. The teacher had made a star out of Elaine, and both the teacher
and Elaine were living within that exaggerated expectation. The teacher
exhibited some of the same impulse to protect Elaine from damaging
exposure (and to stonewall or even punish someone who punctured Elaine's
public reputation) that her parents did; any public shame Elaine
suffered was, they appeared to fear, going to rub off on both the
teacher and Elaine's family. The longer the situation played out,
the more lies several people told until breaking the circle of dishonesty
promised enough shame that no one had the nerve to bring it to resolution.
Coles's story raises the
question of whether one aspect of the situation was that Elaine was
trying to handle more than even a very bright fourth grader could.
She had been built up as a star student, she was active in school
sports, she was active in peer group leadership, she took riding
lessons, and had extensive chores to do at home. Perhaps cheating
began as a mechanism to help her cope with a too-full plate of activities.
Many schoolboys and adolescents are under the same pressures: Their
academics and sports and maybe a part-time job and peer group relations
add up to a set of responsibilities they can't cope with. They begin
to look for shortcuts.
Honesty, Trust, Intimacy
As I've tried to show in
a variety of ways, honesty is a complex and subtle subject, not so
much an end in itself as a means of being responsible and respectful
to the needs of others and of oneself. When honesty is at issue,
there is usually something about the situation that makes being honest
an act of courage. It isn't easy to be honest. Often the easy way
is some version of dishonesty, which is why the dishonest way is
so frequently taken.
Honesty is a principal ingredient
in any establishment of trust. One person can't trust another deeply
without believing that the interaction between them will be carried
on at a high level of honesty. Trustful relations can bear the occasional
white lie to be sensitive to the feelings of others, but not habitual
dishonesty. Beyond the damage it does in specific situations, the
reason we all are anxious about dishonesty is that it erodes trust.
What misrepresentation of the truth will the person who is known
to have been dishonest next put forth? When? For what motive?
One of many places where
the fragility of trust can be observed is in the scientific community.
When a research scientist is accused of falsely manipulating experimental
evidence, a ripple of shock runs through that branch of science.
Because scientists are always building upon the work of others, it
is extremely worrisome to think that some of that work might be unreliable
or deliberately falsified.
In personal relationships,
however, trust involves not just truth as accuracy but truth as vulnerability.
And that is where many men, whatever their strengths, are apt to
stumble. The exaggeration of the self, or misrepresentation of the
self can be second nature to a man.
In his school years, when
he begins to compare himself regularly to others, a boy's sense of
himself, in some measure, exaggerates his best qualities and masks
some of his deficiencies or limitations. As Robert Coles's story
of Elaine showed. a teacher can contribute mightily to a student's
idealized image and then conspire to protect the student from realities
that might diminish that image. Parents likewise want to believe
that their sons match the idealized images the parents have of them.
Several teachers have told me of parents who simply couldn't accept
that their sons might have done what their schools report they have
done. The ideal sons in their heads couldn't be reconciled with the
boys in real life.
These ideal images get intertwined
with the understanding of what it is to love and to be loved. Boys
may believe that they will be loved only to the extent that they
live up to their idealized images, and that they can love others
only to the extent that the objects of their affection, too, fulfill
their idealized images. So they are tempted to lie about truths that
might adversely affect the esteem in which they are held
When a parent and son build
a relationship characterized by deep and dependable love, and that
acknowledges the frailties as well as the strengths of each other.
a boy will learn that some others can be trusted with the truth about
him and that he can handle the truth about them.
Chapter Eleven: Honesty
P. Fitzgerald, "The
Preacher's Life," New York Times, February 22,1998.
Review of I. Klima, The Ultimate Intimacy, trans. A. G.
Brian (New York: Grove Press, 1988).
Piaget Siegler, Children's
S. H. Cath, "Divorce
and the Child: 'The Father Question Hour?'" in S. H. Cath, A.
R. Gurwitt, and J. M. Ross, eds., Father and Child: Developmental
and Clinical Perspectives (Boston: Little, Brown, 1982), 470-479.
S. Bok, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (New
York: Random House, 1978).
T. H. Johnson, ed., The
Poems of Emily Dickinson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University
Coles, The Moral Intelligence
of Children, 34-51.