597. Truth

I have a friend who sometimes does something that bothers me. If we’re talking, and he starts to realize that he’s given me information I’ll use to make a decision he doesn’t like, he tells me he was only kidding, and then he proceeds to tell me the “truth.” And if that “truth” still doesn’t do the trick, he tells me he was kidding again, and then he tells me another “truth.” As I tell him, in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, that I think the information he gave me at first is true, he keeps insisting that it isn’t. Later, I check it out, and it turns out that it was. As you may have guessed, my friend is a child. He’s five years old. And I hope you’ve noticed that even though I put quotes around “truth,” I didn’t put quotes around “friend” (except just now). If my friend were an adult and still did what he does now with facts, I don’t think I’d want to spend time with him. I hope he stops doing it, rather than becoming better and better at it. So far, it’s easy to tell when he’s said something that isn’t true.
Tomorrow, I’ll talk with him about this problem. I’ll tell him that I’ve noticed that sometimes he says true things and then, if the true things don’t work the way he wants them to, he tells me he was only kidding, and switches to things that are not true. I’ll tell him that that bothers me, and that it makes it harder to believe what he says. I won’t tell him that this problem makes it hard to be his friend; so far, that’s not true. I want to keep being his friend, and as he grows, I want to help him learn to stick to saying what’s true.
So far, I haven’t used the word “lie” in this essay, and I won’t use it with him. “Lie” is too heavy a word; it has moral weight. I haven’t used the word “truth” either (except in quotes). It may be that some of the dictionary definitions of “lie” match what my friend does, and that the “truth,” strictly speaking, isn’t what he’s been telling me, but I don’t want to use those words; my friend may have heard them said in religious sermons or other serious lectures, and if he hears them from me, he may
think I’m condemning him – accusing him of sinning. I’m not condemning him. I think he needs to learn, and I don’t think condemnation is an effective teaching tool. People learn best when they’re comfortable, and condemnation doesn’t feel comfortable.
I don’t know if there’s anybody who only says things that he or she knows are true. Most of us try to be honest, and many of us succeed somewhat, but not completely. Sociologists talk about “negotiating reality” – conversing in a way that brings conversants closer and closer to views of reality that work for them. My five year old friend is not a skilled reality-negotiator yet; he sometimes tries to negotiate what
is non-negotiable. That infuriates some people. But not me. He’ll learn. And I’ll teach.

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