creating and sustaining the white lie

That most kids lie should not be surprising, that they lie because their parents teach – even validate the behavior – may come as a shock.

Although we think of truthfulness as a young child’s paramount virtue, it turns out that lying is the more advanced skill. A child who is going to lie must recognize the truth, intellectually conceive of an alternate reality, and be able to convincingly sell that new reality to someone else. Therefore, lying demands both advanced cognitive development and social skills that honesty simply doesn’t require. “It’s a developmental milestone,” Talwar has concluded.

Learning to Lie
Po Bronson
NYTimes Magazine

Reflecting on my own teenage lying behavior, I definitely fit this pattern: “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&emdash;often of a bigger problem behavior,” explains Talwar. “It’s a strategy to keep themselves afloat.” The thing is, I don’t have a sense that my parents lied on purpose, rather that they simply said nothing about important things – the silences were as devastating as any overt attempt to tell an untruth.

I know my parents were unskilled at addressing the difficult situations we faced. I don’t blame them (anymore, grin), but I do still struggle – albeit less often – with residues of adaptive self-training: the things I learned to do to protect myself which have often played out in creating distance instead of intimacy.
Laughing at myself helps. 🙂 For instance, “to an adolescent, arguing is the opposite of lying.” I enjoy arguing – even if my emotions get involved (usually as frustration or exasperation, if I label myself). I take the presence of emotion as more information: something about the topic-at-hand is important to me! What? Why? Maybe I am doomed to a life-stage developmental plateau: permanent adolescence. 🙂
Now, here’s a hell of a statistic, evidence of which I consistently witness in college classrooms: “The average Pennsylvania teen was 244 percent more likely to lie than to protest a rule.” Some democracy, huh? Can you say, “freedom of speech”?! I agree, wholeheartedly, that “Certain types of fighting . . . [are] ultimately signs of respect&emdash;not of disrespect.” I also believe, in principle, that “fighting strengthen[s] … relationship.” Conflict, in-and-of-itself, is normal: “the variable that seem[s] to really matter [is] how the arguments [are] resolved.”
I totally appreciate the author’s divulgence of how “having lying on my radar screen has changed the way things work around the Bronson household. No matter how small, lies no longer go unnoticed. The moments slow down, and I have a better sense of how to handle them” (emphasis added).
As I have worked through this article, applying its lessons to my own life, I also recognize the power of framing. I imagine that the legacy of family habits for dealing with conflict, lying, honesty, etc., could appear in other venues as part of the stage of group development pithily labeled “storming.” Bronson asks (emphasis added): “Does how we deal with a child’s lies really matter down the road in life?”
The most devastating (to me) finding of this research into lying is how adults often recall an apparently innocuous lie from childhood as their worst:

DePaulo had to create a category in her analysis just for them. “I had to reframe my understanding to consider what it must have been like as a child to have told this lie,” she recalls. “For young kids, their lie challenged their self-concept that they were a good child, and that they did the right thing.”

Many subjects commented on how that momentous lie early in life established a pattern that affected them thereafter . . . The lies they tell early on are meaningful. The way parents react can really affect lying.”

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