71. Honesty

Honesty is a good thing. People feel irritated, furious, disappointed – all kinds of bad feelings – when they discover that someone has lied. Sometimes we get cynically used to dishonesty.
We expect politicians, salespeople, any people who stand to gain by hiding things, to lie whenever the truth doesn’t fit. It makes us feel powerless.
But we do have power over our children, at first. So we are going to do everything in our power to make sure they are honest. The problem, as I see it, is that children are often even less able to distinguish between truth and fiction than are politicians and salespeople. This means that the adults who insist on absolute honesty may be asking for something they can’t get. I’ve fought the “good fight,” and I’ve lost.
Imagine a child following this line of reasoning: “I am not lying. Lying is a bad thing to do, and I am not a bad person. I am a good person. Good people tell the truth, and since I’m a good person, what I am saying must be the truth.” Of course, this syllogism is neat and oversimplified, but I do think it is part of what is going on when a child clings to a lie. So in the child’s mind, the question may not be so much about truth and fiction; it may be more about good and evil.
I remember one time I succeeded with this issue. We were on a field trip. Each child had been allowed to bring five dollars. Towards the end of the field trip, one child accused another of stealing his money to buy a souvenir. I led the accused child, whom I knew to have a history of stealing, away from the others, and had a private conversation with the child. We looked at the souvenirs the child had, and the money left. It added up to seven dollars. The child said, “But I didn’t steal anything.” I said, “I know that you didn’t want to steal anything, and I admire you for that, but sometimes, when people really want things, they do things they don’t mean to do.” I left the ethical issue behind and focussed on the math. Three plus four, no matter how you slice it, adds up to more than five. The child eventually had to agree. He then applied the results of his calculations to the ethical issue; he may not have stolen the money, but three plus four is seven, not five. He returned the two dollars, and even apologized.
I don’t quite know how this worked, or how to apply it to other children (or to politicians, salespeople?), but it had something to do with a reality check, with avoiding the kind of confrontation that comes with accusation, and with the difference between teaching and proselytizing.

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