Tell Me Lies

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?

6 thoughts on “Tell Me Lies

  1. For Big-A’s birthday, I also said – no gifts. Part of it was that I haven’t yet taught my children to socially lie. I didn’t want him to hurt anyone’s feelings because the gift they gave him was not his favorite, which what would inevitably occur for a five-year-old. For the gifts that people did bring, we did not open them until we got home. I did have him thank everyone. Teaching thankfulness for gifts I don’t think is a social lie. Teaching a child to be excited for every gift they receive is a social lie.

    In terms of other social lies – hmmm, I’m not sure what I’ve taught them. I do teach them to apologize even when they may not actually be sorry. I see that as norm internalization. As in you may not have thought it was wrong when you did it, and still may not, but it was, and the more times I impress upon you the wrongness of your actions, you’ll internalize it. Part of that is saying sorry. I also insist that they don’t exclude other children from their play, even if they don’t like that child (unless that child is abusive in some way.) I don’t consider it a social lie, but rather that at this age, inclusion should be the norm and its too early to exclude other children. I don’t insist on hugs for adults – I do think that’s a social lie to some extent, expressing some sense of affection that may not be there.


    1. Yes, I do agree that there is a difference between insisting that children say “thank-you,” and insisting they put on a show. Sometimes adults make it hard, though, following up with “really? do you really like it? what do you like about it???”

      But I think it’s interesting that you “haven’t taught your kids to socially lie” yet. How about that? Something about that doesn’t sit well with me; this admission that we have to teach them to lie. I’m also interested in the lies I engage in all day; tiny white lies that my child will witness; in fact, that is how I will teach her to lie as well. What if I lived a more truthful life? It might make others uncomfortable, but it would probably make me happier (“no; I don’t want to talk to you right now”), and make her a more truthful person–a person better able to set and enforce boundaries…


  2. Hmm…I don’t think socially lying is that big of a deal. I think we socially lie to spare others feelings, especially when it’s not that big a deal to us. If someone we love gives us a present we may not like so much, I don’t think it serves a huge purpose to tell them so, if doing so is going to hurt them. Some friends/family can take such feedback, and if they can, great. But if they cannot, then there is no benefit to the relationship, even if it makes you feel like a more truthful and honest person. I don’t believe in honesty for honesty’s sake. Some lies, in my opinion, are not that bad.

    But a five year old to another five year old – I don’t think they can understand that yet. So in our house, we do insist on complete honesty about everything. Lying is completely unacceptable. We explain that lying is about trust – I need to be able to trust that when you say something, it is as you say it is. We reward honesty even when something has gone wrong to root out the incentive to lie. We don’t open gifts because I don’t want there to be the incentive to lie – to spare feelings – at this age because I think it’s the same incentive to not tell mommy when something has gone wrong because it will make mommy upset.

    But in general, as children get older, maintaining community means that we will have to lie sometimes to get along. I may not want to talk to you right now, but my needs are not the only important needs. It’s lying, yes, in the sense that I’d really rather be saying something else, but it’s also maturity to understand that in a community there is a difference between boundary setting and being egotistical.


  3. A line must definitely be drawn between absolute truthfulness all the time and the needs of others. It’s true that what we want cannot always be put first, although I’m not sure the answer is to lie. Rather, the answer might be to genuinely be more empathetic; to see value in communicating with someone despite not having the initial time or desire to do so at that moment.

    I also think social lying has a bigger cost than we think, as illustrated by childrens’ ability to look others in the eye when lying. As we get older, we ignore this discomfort, but I think it’s always there. I also think that women, in particular, engage in a lot of social lying to make others feel better, when all we’re doing is making ourselves feel bad. The other day, I got a call from a political pollster, and instead of saying right out, “I am not interested in taking your survey,” I endured several minutes of questions until I couldn’t take it anymore, and just blurted out, “you know, I don’t think I’m very useful for this survey.” And even then, I endured questions like “can I call you another time?” It should have never even gotten that far, but “I felt bad.” It’s the same as telling a waiter that it’s “okay” they screwed up your order, when it really isn’t; you don’t have to tell the waiter they suck, but what’s with the “it’s okay” that we tack on there when they apologize? And then after they walk away, we complain about it at the table; and our kids see that–they see the lies.

    I don’t mean to make this a bigger issue than it is; I’m just thinking about the value and/or necessity of social lying, and in my own life, much of it is unnecessary, and unhealthy.


  4. LOL – yeah, you gotta get over that with the telephone people. I straight up say, “sorry, I’m not interested” and “no, I won’t be interested at another time” and if they don’t quit, I hang up. I don’t feel bad. If my order is messed up, I’ll bring it up; if they apologize, I will usually say it’s okay if they fix it. That’s because it is okay – everyone makes mistakes and as long as they fix it, I’m usually not too put out. I generally won’t complain at the table. My kids are complainers, so I try not to model that behavior by being a good sport. So in these instances it seems like the bigger issue is not the social lie per se, but the underlying behavior. Don’t be annoyed at the person on the phone – be straight with them and then hang up. Don’t complain at the table after the waitress is gone – speak your piece then let it go.


  5. I encourage the gift of words … which is just as well since I founded a company on that basis! Seriously, the point that resonated is the public thanking. At our wedding I BEGGED my husband not to start thanking people at the reception because, inevitably, someone would be left out.

    He heard that message before a bottle of champagne and some whiskey was inside him. He proceeded to thank everyone EXCEPT the woman who made our wedding cake and who was sitting next to him at the top table.

    I therefore have opted out of ‘public thankings’ and, instead, make a considered list when I am alone of who to write to for what (wanted or not).

    Great ‘true life’ post. Thank you. HMS


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