A New York Magazine article from a couple of years ago started off with these somewhat startling words:
Kids lie early, often, and for all sorts of reasons—to avoid punishment, to bond with friends, to gain a sense of control. But now there’s a singular theory for one way this habit develops: They are just copying their parents.
Beleaguered parents take it on the chin once again. We choose to do the impossible, which seems at first like one act of love that leads to a life of love, and not infrequently much of that is true; but few parents and children move down life’s pathway together able to avoid all bumps in the road. Sometimes those bumps are caused by forces external to the parent/child relationship; at other times, those bumps are caused by an intrapersonal problem in the child/parent relationship itself.
The quote from the New York Magazine said exactly the same thing about lying itself. Sometimes, kids lie for reasons that have nothing to do with their parents, and sometimes they lie because they are merely mimicking their parents. This mimicking parents behavioral pattern is surely one of the most sobering realities parents have to face. Sometimes, when parents have goofed, they may say to their children, “Mommy or Daddy goofed. This is not how I should act, and it’s not how I want you to act.” What it boils down to is a directive to “do as I say, not as I do.” That might work rarely, but it’s not going to work as a weekly bail out.
What kids see as the typical behavior of their parents is what they’re going to mimic, because--as is always the case with younger children--they aren’t able to evaluate parental behavior as correct or incorrect. Older children may well know that some people out there somewhere believe lying is wrong, but because they love their parents they give their parents a pass and develop a rationale for lying that says, “There must be good reasons my parents lie, even to me, so if there’s a good enough reason to lie at home and away from home, including lying to people I love and trust, it must be OK; it must work out alright in the end.” A child being punished for lying by a lying parent has a painfully incongruous experience, destructive to the child’s emotional health and development. It simply does not compute.
One study says that in our culture, children start lying regularly when they’re about four years old. I don’t know who sat behind the two-way glass all those hours, but a number of researchers say that many four year olds lie about every two hours; and by the time they’re six they’re lying about every hour and a half. Mostly the lies they tell are relatively inconsequential unless you as a parent believe that your child must tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth all the time.
Some child psychologists advise parents not to worry about lying kids, saying that the child will grow out of this childish behavior. In reality, however, many children seem to grow up into lying rather than out of it, and, again, this may have something to do with how often they see their parents lying. Children also learn by observation that pure honesty often creates tension and pressure and anxiety while lying may smooth things out or keep the conflict from ever showing up in the first place. Their lying may begin as while lies, but as someone has said, “The one who tells white lies quickly becomes color blind.”
Our children may learn to lie by observing the little lies we tell on a regular basis, or we may pressure them into lying. Here’s an example. They open a Christmas or a birthday gift, and it’s not at all what they wanted. When they express their honest disappointment, their parents jump all over them so the child learns to say that she or he likes any and all gifts ever received. As adults, we may honestly say that we like any gift given to us because by that point in our lives we really have learned that it’s the thought that counts. I couldn't care less what my kids or any other member of my family gets for me as a gift; that they put any effort into thinking about something I might like and investing their hard-earned money in something for me touches me deeply. I don’t care what it is.
Kids, though, can’t go out and buy whatever they want; as a rule, anyway. They only have a shot at getting what they want, what they hope for if someone with money and the means to acquire the item goes out and gets the desired gift for the child. If that doesn’t happen, the child isn’t likely to get what she or he most wants. So, yeah, when the wrapping paper is ripped away to reveal some nice new underwear rather than the latest “must have” piece of technology, the child who is honest isn’t happy about that. Maybe we could help with that particular problem by not giving necessities as gifts. The typical first world kid doesn’t want to open a gift box to find underwear, toothpaste, a toothbrush, or a packet of Kleenex to carry to school on a runny nose day.
It’s a good news/bad news thing, depending on how you look at it. A Canadian child development professor who is an expert on childhood lying, Dr. Victoria Talwar, says her research has shown that the smartest kids are the best liars. Speaking intellectually and not morally, lying is a more advanced skill than telling the truth. The child who quickly becomes an habitual liar, carrying that pattern of behavior beyond childhood can well become savvy and successful in many American professions. It takes some creativity and some hutzpah to lie and to lie well, but the kid with the lowest grades and the least hope of academic success can only tell the truth well.
Dr. Talwar says,
Thrown into elementary school, many kids begin lying to their peers as a coping mechanism, as a way to vent frustration or get attention. Any sudden spate of lying, or dramatic increase in lying, is a danger sign: Something has changed in that child’s life, in a way that troubles him. Lying is a symptom—often of a bigger problem behavior. It’s a strategy to keep the child afloat.
In longitudinal studies, a majority of 6-year-olds who frequently lie have it socialized out of them by age 7. But if lying has become a successful strategy for handling difficult social situations, a child will stick with it. About half of all kids do—and if they’re still lying a lot at 7, then it seems likely to continue for the rest of childhood. They’re hooked.
OK, parents, take your licks, but it’s not all your fault if you have children who become and remain liars, who become addicted to lying. We live in a culture of dishonesty.
Preachers preach theology they don’t believe. Congregants recite creeds, acting as if they take these ancient formulations as truth, when week by week they are saying to themselves on the inside as they recite the creed out loud communally, “That’s a bunch of bunk. Total nonsense.” News reporters lie because they enjoy it and/or because the information put into their hands to read has been approved by the big bosses, and they have no choice but to read what they’ve been given if they want to keep their jobs. Politicians lie, and there are those who say that it is now a necessity for politicians to lie in order to get their goals accomplished. I’d like to cast a vote against lying politicians. I want to vote for political leaders who tell the truth. Descendants of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, please find your way back to Washington, DC. Many, thankfully not all, politicians lie to their constituents, to their colleagues, to members of the opposing party, perhaps to themselves, and most assuredly to the world as a whole.
This is nothing new, but the cumulative effort of political lying in a democracy is that those in the voting pool, the citizens, don’t expect to hear the truth and position themselves to believe lies and half-truths, which are also half-lies, because it takes too much energy to verify truth. By the time our kids are early teens, they’ve had a current events class at school, and they begin to understand political comments their parents make, revealing their tacit acceptance of blatant political lies.
A website called “Ranker” lists the thirty or forty least trusted career politicians in modern US history. I’ll share only the top ten with you here.
Dick Cheney far and away was the politician American citizens trust least.
George W. Bush
One of the lies that kids often tell is a denial lie, “It wasn’t me,” which should be, “It wasn’t I,” though I’ve never heard a kid tell that lie in a grammatically correct manner. Kids who don’t learn to accept responsibility for what they do can become lying adults who are unable to accept responsibility for the errors they make. It’s usually easier on everyone involved if the person who made a mistake or did something wrong admits it. A mark of maturity as well as a mark of morality is owning up to our imperfections.
In one of my seminars on marriage and family counseling, I was introduced to the work of psychotherapist Virginia Satir and her delightful book, Peoplemaking. One of the marks of mental health, according to Satir, is consistently being able and willing to claim who we are, warts and all as some have come to say. I am the sum total of all I think and do--what I’m proud of and what embarrasses me. Until I embrace the parts of me that I like as well as the parts I don’t like so much, I can’t be a healthy, whole person.
Of course, the reason many folks have a problem with admitting to their imperfections is that they have a false self-image they feel they must maintain at all costs; they want so desperately to be the person they portray themselves to be rather than the person they are that they will lie, and usually this process requires a whole series of lies, to try their best to keep other people believing that they are the person they pretend to be, not the person they really are. Sadly, this is often a way of life for someone who really dislikes herself or himself, and instead of working to learn to like the person they see in the mirror every morning, they create what amounts to an alternate identity. I’m not talking about the illness referred to as Dissociative Identity Disorder wherein a person is mentally ill and may develop multiple personalities. What I’m talking about is the simple, very conscious decision by someone free of mental illness who dislikes herself or himself so much that the person tells lies to have others think they aren’t who they appear to be.
When my younger son, Carson, sold New Balance shoes at the Christiana Mall, one of the scenarios he hated most was for a heavy set person--sorry ladies, but it was always a woman in his experience though I’m sure men were doing the same thing somewhere else--to come into the store and ask for a size that was obviously too small and too narrow. I think the salespersons were allowed to suggest very gently that the shoe they were asking for ran a little small so they might have more luck fitting her with something slightly larger. Some of the customers accepted that kind way of saying in code language, “Look, honey, we both know you don’t wear a size 6 narrow; we’ll be lucky to get you into an 8 four E.” Others, and these were Carson’s favorites, irately insisted that they knew their shoe size and had been wearing exactly the same size for years, and if he wanted their business he’d get the size they asked for and get the shoes on their feet instantly. So, he had no choice but to get the tiny size requested, and then try to wrestle a fat foot into a dainty shoe. Every now and then, the customers would concede that in that style only they just might need to go up a bit in size and width, but many of them would stomp out of the store demeaning him and the store and the merchandise as they made their boisterous departure.
He would mention that from time to time, and I’d always think about the story of Cinderella and the Prince going all over the place trying to find the delicate foot that alone would fit into the shoe that had fallen off Cinderella’s foot as she ran to make her pre-midnight coach. Many young women, including Cinderella’s stepsisters, were too willing to try on the shoe even though they knew good and well they were not Cinderella and couldn’t get a big foot into a delicate shoe.
Overall, I’m a fan of the actor, Will Smith, and my favorite among his several films has to be “Six Degrees of Separation,” in which he plays a young man, a New York Street hustler, with an amazing gift for lying--so good in fact, that he could convince people he was the son of Sidney Pointier, trying to produce a revival of the musical “Cats” for all African American actors. On the power of both lies he ended up getting everything from cash to the privilege of extended stays in posh homes of socialites who would love to have the chance to know the great actor in person; befriending his son would surely bring about that opportunity. In reality, the character was so good at lying that he could do so without any of the giveaway clues that criminologists, for example, watch for as verification that a suspect is lying to detectives or to juries. Will Smith’s character gave no intention whatsoever that he was lying, and, thus, he was almost never suspicioned.
“Six Degrees of Separation” was a film adapted from a play by the same title, and it was based on a true story. The real-life con artist who had the name Paul in John Gaure’s play and the film was David Hampton who, in real life conned several people with his schemes, three of the most famous being Melanie Griffith, Gary Sinise, and Calvin Klein.
Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia was the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, the last sovereign of Imperial Russia. She with her whole family was murdered in July 1918 by the Bolshevik secret police. Because two bodies of family members were not found in the mass grave where all bodies of murdered family members were supposed to have been placed, rumors persisted for years that Anastasia and one other sibling escaped the Bolshevik massacre.
Numerous women across the years claimed to be the escaped Anastasia, though some years ago the possibility that Anastasia could have lived was ruled out completely. Still, impersonators lied about who they were and claimed to be the only survivor from Tsar Nicholas’s family. The most famous of these impersonators, because she was most convincing even though the majority of experts who studied the facts said she was lying, was a woman named Anna Anderson.
She explained her survival by claiming that, like other members of her family, she too had been bayoneted, but the bayonet used on her was blunt. She was seriously injured, but not dead. As she told the story, a soldier noticed that she moved after being thought dead. He took her to Romania to recover. There was never consistency in how Anastasia’s relatives responded to Anderson’s identity claims. Some said she was Anastasia; others insisted that she wasn’t. The aunt of Anastasia, Princess Irene, denied it, but her son, Prince Sigismund, who had been Anastasia’s childhood playmate, confirmed it by saying that Anderson knew some details about their times together that only Anastasia would have known.
Anna Anderson was financially supported by those who believed her story. She carried on as a rich brat. She was very demanding of her hosts from whom she expected royal treatment. When things didn’t go her way she might pitch a tantrum, and in the extreme have a kind of nervous breakdown. Her champions explained her erratic behavior by saying that any little girl who had witnessed what Anastasia had witnessed would naturally be emotionally impaired for life.
In 1938, Anna Anderson filed a lawsuit in a German court to prove her identity and claim her inheritance. The case had to have been one of the longest trials in history; it didn’t end until 1970. After all that time, the German court ruled against Anna Anderson and said she had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she was Grand Duchess Anastasia. Ms. Anderson died in 1984 from complications related to pneumonia. Her body was cremated, but some tissue samples and hair clippings were kept. In 1994, DNA testing was done comparing Anderson’s DNA to the DNA of undisputed members of Tsar Nicholas’s family. Those results, like the court case, cast doubt on Anderson’s claims that she was Anastasia.
We have before us today a story of a majorly dysfunctional family. A son lies to his father, tricks his father into believing that he, the son, is his older brother in order to get more of the family inheritance. The lying son is urged on by his mother, the wife of the man being cheated, and the brother whose money is taken from him through one of the earliest instances of known identity theft is angry and upset, but he ended up years later having a big heart though he wasn’t the sharpest camel in the caravan.
It’s a magnificent story, though disturbing. None of us who are parents want to believe our children lie to us when they are little ones, but the thought that our adult children might lie to us is so painful we can hardly articulate it. Putting away childish things, we want our adult children to be completely trustworthy; we don’t want to be wasting energy trying to decide if what they tell us is true or not.
Carole Bell is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a parent of adult children. The issue of having adult children who lie to their parents, sadly, isn’t an uncommon one. Ms. Bell says that part of the reason some adult children lie to their parents is that their nosy, controlling parents keep asking them about matters which are none of the parents’ business unless the adult child makes it the business of her or his parents. What if you have one of those kids who didn’t leave lying behind when move out of childhood and then out of adolescence? Bell says if that’s the case, and you ever want the problem corrected, you eventually have to make a dreaded announcement to your adult child that should go something like this:
I have repeatedly taken your word for the truth, only to find out later that you were lying. I am to the point now that I question anything that you say to me. I really do not like what that does to our relationship. From now on, I will not try to find out what is true, but will assume that if it benefits you to lie, you will. I just cannot trust you any more. I hope that will change in the future, but for now, that’s how it stands.
“Then,” says Ms. Bell, “let it go. Do not question or lecture. Just be there as a friend, a cautious friend.”
As we age, many of us think about our children being there for us--not so much as caregivers because not many of us really want that, but--as sources of emotional support and reminders of powerful love that have enriched our lives. We don’t want bad blood with our kids in our golden years so some parents will put up with anything their adult children dish out in the hopes that the strong bond we have wanted believe is present really is and will endure.
I haven’t yet been to a happy funeral, but I can tell you that one of the saddest funerals I was ever asked to conduct was for a widowed mother who had one child, a daughter, from whom she was estranged. When Irvaline died, the nursing home kept trying to call her daughter in another state, and when they couldn’t reach the daughter they called us at her church, University Church in Baltimore. We like they had no way to reach the daughter who didn’t want to be reached. If memory serves, the daughter never responded to the nursing home. Evidently, when Irvaline moved into the nursing home she gave her daughter’s name and number as next of kin and emergency contact. This left the nursing home with the responsibility of working out final arrangements.
As if all of that isn’t sad enough, the day of the funeral was a bitter cold Baltimore day, as gloomy and gray as could be, with a bit of icy rain falling. The weather didn’t help this, but there were three of us at Irvaline Hargatt’s funeral. The funeral director who also had driven the hearse, an administrator from the nursing home, and me, her pastor. Even the grave diggers weren’t there that they because they would do no burials in that kind of weather; perhaps, too, under the muddy layer of ground the dirt might have been frozen so that a grave couldn’t have been dug.
So there we were, three of us alive and one deceased. The casket would have to be taken back to the funeral home until burial could be arranged so the funeral director opened the hearse and pulled the casket out as far as the rolling supports would allow, and the three of us stood there while I conducted a brief memorial service in front of an undertaker who didn’t know her at all and a kindhearted nursing home administrator who knew her only in passing.
My boys were little then, but I remember thinking to myself, “Whatever it takes I will never cause, allow, create such estrangement from my sons that they wouldn’t even show up for my funeral.” So that is why some parents put up with lying and other unacceptable behavior on the parts of their children.
Back to the biblical world where Isaac knew that his days on earth were coming to an end; he would soon be going to the abode of the dead, Sheol. Isaac and his contemporaries had no idea of heaven as Christians later defined it. He thought he was going to dwell where all people, the good and the bad, went to dwell when earthly life had passed.
Though it was the law that the first born son received a greater share of his father’s money and property than any younger sons, evidently there was still a ritual where the aging or dying father would speak words of blessing to his sons as he confirmed the transfer of his earthly goods into their possession. Isaac felt the time was right to pass the blessing. He asked Esau, who was a hunter, to go a kill a wild animal, which would be the main dish at a meal they would share together before the blessing was officially pronounced. While Esau was out hunting, Jacob, fully encouraged by his mother Rebekah, concocted and carried out a plan whereby Jacob fooled his blind, dying father into believing that he, Jacob, was his older brother, Esau. Jacob had already tricked his brother into agreeing that Jacob and not Esau would get the greater amount of the inheritance when Isaac was gone.
Esau was a hairy man; Jacob was smooth skinned so Jacob donned some of Esau’s clothing and put animal skins over his arms before he went in to pretend to be Esau and ask for the inheritance and his father’s blessing. This is the first known case of identity theft in history.
Isaac was surprised that Esau was back so soon, but Jacob, pretending to be Esau, said that God had provided the meat for their meal almost as soon as the hunt had begun. They ate a meal together, and then based purely on lies and deceit Jacob received what was rightfully his brother’s regardless of what Esau had said in a stressful situation.
When Isaac found out that he’d been tricked, he couldn’t change the material part of the inheritance, but he could amend the blessing; and he did so. He said that though Jacob might very well prosper, he would still be a servant to his older brother. When Esau found out that Jacob had followed through on the promise he, Esau, had made to reverse the recipient of the larger inheritance, he was irate, and he told his brother that he’d better enjoy his money right away because he’d be dead soon. Esau vowed to kill Jacob.
This part of the story comes to an end with Jacob being on the run from his brother; this fear of Esau and a life of running from the threat of fratricide dominated Jacob’s life for the next several years. The tension between the brothers becomes the focus of the story from there on out. Isaac's addendum to his blessing is recalled from time to time, but the offense, the serious offense, of lying to one's parent for monetary gain and a move up of one rung on the social ladder fades from the narrative. It shouldn't; it's a pivotal, stunning, and revolting part of the story--lying to a parent, a dying one no less for financial gain. It should shake us up and disappoint us.
What could be more disrespectful than that? What could have broken a dying father's heart more than leaving this world knowing that one of his sons thought more his father's money than he thought of his father and was willing to deceive and lie to manipulate the now helpless man who had participated in giving him life and who had, from the son's birth on, been involved in providing for that son. There is no way to find a happy ending for this story. There is no clever quote or moral of the story to carry home with you for the week. What Jacob did to his dying father was despicable at every level, and the fact that his mother encouraged him to do what he did makes the story that much worse. Hopefully, Isaac never knew that his beloved wife, Rebekah, had helped their son deceive him for financial gain; that would have made his dying all the more painful. Isaac whose name meant laughter and who had brought laughter and joy to many left this world in tears, rather than in joyous thanksgiving for his rich life, because of a lying son.