At a brunch to celebrate my graduation from law school, I opened gifts in front of my friends. The ritual made me so uncomfortable, I gushed excessively over every gift, and closed the brunch with an overwrought thank-you speech in which I forgot to thank my then-future husband for organizing the event in my honor. At my wedding shower a year later, the process again made me nervous, causing me to forget to hug one guest after opening her gift, despite having hugged all the other guests in thanks for their gifts. Two years after that, I flat out refused to publicly open gifts at my baby shower; my husband did the honors instead, dutifully modeling board books and newborn clothing so attendants could “ooh” and “ahh.” By the time my daughter’s first birthday rolled around, I wasn’t taking any chances; the invitations read, “please, no gifts.”
I recently thought about these experiences when reading about why children lie. Apparently, we don’t properly teach them the value of truth-telling, insisting on punishing them when they are truthful about a misdeed, instead of being happy that they told the truth. The second reason that kids lie, however, is because they see us lying. Even young children, not yet adept at effectively masking their disappointment, know from watching us that they should act happy when receiving a pitiful gift like a bar a soap.
My thoughts turn, then, to the value of social lies. Even though we feel obligated to tell them, social lies don’t make us feel very good. Those young children are unable to look researchers in the eye when asked why they like that bar of soap. And my discomfort regarding the lies I feel obligated to tell when receiving gifts is what drives me to avoid the situations all together. Although I may be grateful for a particular gift, it is often the case that the value of the gift pales in comparison to the value of the gift-giver herself. Accordingly, I just don’t get very excited about it. Opening gifts at parties just amplifies the lie. For me, celebrations are about being witness to the moment of joy we can share right now through song, dance, and laughter; not about your gift. Nevertheless, I stress out over my “thank-you performance,” often replaying the scene in my mind afterwards, fearful that I wasn’t “happy” enough. I wish I could just say, “thanks for whatever it is you got me; now let’s go dance!” instead.
I’d like my daughter to learn to mark milestones through warm memories, but the truth is that people who love her will also mark her milestones through material things, and my responsibility is to teach her to receive such things graciously, even if she has no need or desire for it. My responsibility will be to teach her to lie. I’m not sure how to feel about the lies I will be encouraging by teaching her to “act happy enough” even if she doesn’t want, need, or like a gift. Given my particular incompetence in this area, I’m not even sure I’ll do a good job.
Social lying seems to be part of what we are expected to teach our children to do. Does it have to be this way? What social lies do you encourage your children to tell? And is it worth the mendacity the encouragement cultivates?