Teach Your Children Well

We tend to teach things to children in terms of absolutes. This is because we think they’re too dumb to grasp nuance. That’s why our teachings fail so often.

It’s like when you were back in college or high school, and you got lectures about the evils of drugs. Maybe things have progressed somewhat, but in my day, the message was something like, "If you take a single hit off a marijuana joint, it will plasticize 4 billion brain cells instantly, besides which you will ended up addicted to heroin and die within two years."

Now that was obviously nonsense, and so we automatically ignored everything else the lecturer had to say because he simply couldn't be trusted, even if some of the other things he had to say might have been legitimate. (The 35 cigarettes it took him just to get through his talk didn't do much for his credibility, either.)

But back to kids.

Take the admonition not to lie. We tell them it’s always bad to lie. It’s a universal no-no.

Except that, sure as the sun is going to rise tomorrow, at some point early in their lives, they’re going to hear you lie. And they’re going to ask why you lied, and you’re going to fumble around and give them some ridiculous answer that only confuses them further.

Because, contrary to popular belief, kids are smart as hell. At least when it comes to some things. One of those things is detecting a load of blatantly hypocritical horse manure, especially from a parent or teacher, upon whom they spend most of their little lives waiting to pounce.

So what do you do? Tell them the truth: It is not always bad to lie.

An example: A lot of people — and this was really true in the 60’s — confuse honesty with simply saying the first thing that comes to your mind, regardless of how unnecessarily hurtful it might to others. But you know that it is all right to lie in order not to injure somebody’s feelings. You do it all the time, not because you’re a pathological liar but because you’re a nice person.

So suppose your kid hears you on the phone telling some obnoxious neighbors you can’t stand that you won’t be able to come to their barbecue party because you have to go to the office. The kid knows you haven’t worked a Saturday since the earth cooled, and so he asks you what’s going on.

If you've already told him a million times that lying is bad, period, now you have to do the old soft shoe and hope it works.

It won’t. He’s too smart. It is even possible he’s going to let the neighbors know that it didn't work.

But if you've already told him that lying is acceptable in certain circumstances, you can now easily demonstrate that this was one of them. You saved your neighbors’ feelings and no harm was done.

The goal should not be to teach that all lying is bad. It should be to teach that it takes an awful lot of experience to determine those rare instances when lying is all right, and that the best way for your kids to learn is by watching you until they get the hang of it.

Some responsibility, that.

It starts with not lying to them.

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