Let's start with a little POP QUIZ, the perfect accompaniment to your Wednesday morning coffee, surely.
Question: Which of the following are lies?
1. Those new train-engineer pants of yours are very flattering; the vertical stripes are so slimming.
2. Mama will be right back honey, to lie on your floor while you fall asleep, just as soon as she goes potty. Riiiight back. [closing door]
3. But I didn't hit her, Mama. She hit herself!
4. If you eat all your vegetables, you will get giant muscles, just like Billy Blanks.
5. Thank you for this beautiful chicken-wire sculpture of a string quartet. I can't imagine a more lovely dining room centerpiece.
6. I don't know how great-grandma's Stradivarius got that huge hole in it.
Answer: All of them.
But here's the sixty-four million dollar question: how do you explain to your four-year-old that numbers 3 and 6 are serious no-nos, while 2 and 4 are forgivable necessities, and 1 and 5 are required utterances? (And since you all don't know me, and if I were you, I'd be wondering, let me just say right now that we do NOT have a Stradivarius or any other kind of violin lying around our house; in our family, great-grandma's musical prowess was focused squarely on whistling. She was a super-crazy-good whistler. And she once danced with Henry Ford. The Henry Ford. No lie. But that's neither here nor there...)
More and more, I'm struggling with the nuances of lying and the sticky goo that (barely) separates lies from etiquette. Not to mention the morass that is Tried-and-True Parenting Throughout The Ages.
* Do that one more time and your face will freeze that way! Forever!!
* Well, we'll see if it stops snowing by the time mommy is done working out, and if it does, we will definitely go swimming.
* Don't do that or you'll grow hair on your palms.
Presumably, things like these work, or parents wouldn't say them. Right? Deterrence, bait-and-switch, intimidation, it was all good for our parents' and grandparents' generations.
But I have a Son who asks questions about everything. And who is fascinated right now with lies.
"What are we having for dinner, mama?"
"Hmmm...I don't know...giraffe soup?" I reply playfully.
"That's lying," he says in an accusatory tone. "You are saying a lie. We aren't really having that."
He's right that we're not, of course. And yet, one would think that my tone would have made clear that I wasn't exactly trying to pull a fast one. Subtlety thy name is four-year-old? *snort* Nuance is hardly the purview of the preschool set. It's not that he doesn't understand tones of voice or facial expressions, but that he's in a very cut-and-dried state of life in which things are either true, or they are not.
And a serious challenge. "Mama will be right back to lie down with you..." remember that one? Can't say that anymore to his two-year-old sister. The first time this registered for him, his eyes got big. "Are you really?" he asked. "Are you really going back into her room after you tuck me in?" Implicit in his wondering tone: or did Mama say a LIE?? I back-pedaled, told him I would go in to check on her after he was settled, and have never told her that particular story again (within his earshot). I don't want to teach him to tell people what they want to hear, no matter his intentions to follow through or not.
On the child-rearing front, the intense clarity of his definition of truth has made me more honest. And I think that's a good thing. It forces me to think carefully before I make promises, to consider another option before I bait-and-switch, to be upfront about what is possible and what is not, even when it makes them cry. (Yes, I make my children cry. But only when it's about really big and important serious stuff, like the fact that we've run out of "tenders" [fish sticks] and they will have to eat macaroni and cheese instead.)
But I'm still stumped on the etiquette thing. Son said bluntly, hurting the feelings of a boy at his birthday party, "No, it's NOT cool!" in response to my rhapsodizing over a book the boy had given him about a duck. The next day, he apologized, and said, quite genuinely, how much he liked the book, which we had read about four times in 24 hours. The other boy seemed fine with that. But I wonder: should I be drilling him on the etiquette of the little-white-lie? Or should I just be relishing the precious time I have with him before his moral compass admits a fuzzier setting, something between right and wrong, some shade of gray that is not quite the truth, but not really a lie either. Those stories of convenience, the ones that make our friends feel better, our children a bit happier, the ones that don't hurt anyone or cover up anything significant: how detrimental are they really? Are they something we should avoid along with the serious whoppers?
In short: what do I teach my children to say when Aunt Clara gives them giant homemade pink bunny suits for Christmas? And how do I explain that it isn't a lie?