From “The Men They Will Become”
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 this, Dad?”
“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 was:”
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 him again.”
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: a daddy.
Jeff: Where is my daddy? Why doesn’t he stay here the way the other daddies do?
Mother: Because we are divorced, and he lives somewhere else.
Jeff: What is ‘divorced’ mean?
Mother: Sometimes 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.
Jeff: Does he live far away from here?
Mother: Not very far away, but he lives away from here.
Mother: In an apartment.
Jeff: Will he come to see us?
Mother: No, 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?
Jeff: Did Karen (his cousin) and Janie (a neighbor’s child) pick out their daddies?
Mother: No, 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 evidence.
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 same.
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 resistance.
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 rues.
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 governmental snares.
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 a lie.
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 and cultivate.
When Not to Tell the Truth
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 say, “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 and reassuring.
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 tell Mommy.”
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 again.
“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 Awareness
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 problem.
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 impunity.
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 Thinking, 33-34.
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 Press, 1951).
Coles, The Moral Intelligence of Children, 34-51.