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What Lying Teaches Us About Finding the Truth

How we teach our kids to be truthful says a lot about how we find the truth in all areas of life.

It’s parenting 101: teach your kids not to lie. But it rarely goes as expected. We’re hurt to discover that kids end up lying anyway. In fact, they end up lying a lot.

So why do our efforts go off the rails? Most of us teach by example. We highlight the bad things that happen when people lie, and the good things that happen when people tell the truth. But kids learn early on that lying has certain tactical advantages. They learn that lying isn’t all bad. “If I lie, I’ll get an extra cookie.” “If I lie, I won’t have to clean my room right now.” “If I lie, I won’t have to tell Mom how I’m really feeling.” Our examples bump up against their reality.

Here’s the thing about anecdotal evidence: it’s easy to cherry-pick observations to support whatever position you want to take. But reality is much more complicated and nuanced. And it’s undeniably richer than our experience of it. Not only do examples fail to persuade, they fail to provide a foundation for learning.

For that we need something deeper. We need explanations.

In his short book on Lying, Sam Harris offers a lattice of mutually supporting explanations. He asks us to consider the lie from the perspective of the person being lied to. What does it say about our character? What does the lie say about your relationship? And lying is a terrible experience anyway, even from the liar’s perspective. Do you really want to risk the social upheaval and embarrassment? All things tallied, telling the truth leads to a simpler and more authentic life, and avoids all the mental accounting needed to keep track of your lies. It may bring some short-term pain, but it offers long-term gain.

When compared to isolated examples drawn from experience, his exposition certainly feels more coherent and persuasive. It not only covers our experience, it allows us to predict what might happen in situations we haven’t even experienced yet.

But reality conspires against not only our examples, but our explanations too. It taunts us with counterexamples of white lies, carried by good intentions. Or blue lies, the bullets taken for the good of our group. Or bluffs, half-truths, or exaggerations, the defensive mechanisms we shoulder to get through the battles of our daily life.

And so, if Harris’ explanations don’t solve your problem, you need to keep looking. This isn’t truth-seeking so much as problem-solving.

Jeremy Adam Smith summarized what science has to say about lying, including what’s good about it. He reminds us that we often lie to our kids about far more than just Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny. We use lies to shelter them, telling them everything will be okay when it may not. We use lies to encourage our children in the face of complete failure. We show children how to lie for good, such as telling a relative how much you love the gift of a handmade Christmas sweater.

Smith explains that prosocial lies are an effort to balance two values: honesty and empathy. We want our children to embrace both of these values, and reality frequently places them in opposition. Some lies bond people together, while other lies tear them apart. And both black and white lies may be explained by reference to empathy and kindness.

Note how experience takes a subordinate role with these deeper explanations. Observations remain vital, our tether to reality. But the examples are no longer the teacher. They’re the critics. They allow us to test our evolving explanations. And we adopt those explanations that best survive these critical tests.

But here’s the crazy part: Perhaps you agree that empathy and kindness is the most general basis for truthfulness. If so, you’ll begin creating statements of your experiences that reflect this conceptual frame. Lying is no longer just a series of examples, like getting your hand caught in the cookie jar. Your explanations reach further, beyond your own experiences into worlds you couldn’t otherwise inhabit, such as the experience of your child. As explanations change your understanding of lying, they change your observations of lying, too.

We’re often told that our knowledge and learning is derived from our experiences. We’re told to follow the evidence. But we’re really pursuing something much deeper. We’re pursuing good explanations, with experience and observations rippling in their wake.

Harris, S. Lying. Four Elephants Press, 2013.

Smith, J.A. “What’s Good about Lying?” 2017.

Stone, A. “Is Your Child Lying to You? That’s Good.” 2018.

Van Bergen, P. & Newall, C. “Why do kids lie, and is it normal?” 2018.