When I arrived home from work yesterday, my wife calmly informed me that she had just lied to our son. Sullivan, our oldest, has many quirky preferences (like a lot of other children, I believe) and he can be quite stubborn (gee, I wonder who he inherits that from?). One of his quirky preferences is that his sandwiches be made with grape jelly, not any other flavor, and especially not strawberry. I consider this preference to be quirky because Sullivan can’t really tell the difference once the sandwich is made.
Yesterday we had a household crisis — we were out of grape jelly of any kind. Sullivan initially asked for grape jelly and was told that we were out. He then refused to eat any sandwich not containing grape jelly. And so he watched suspiciously as my wife reached into the fridge and pulled out a jar labeled “four berry” jam (one that I had bought a week earlier, because I happen to like it). He asked what exactly that was, and at that point my wife lied — she told him that one of the four berries was grape, and that there was no strawberry in it. Content with that explanation, Sullivan ate his sandwich in peace.
I thought a little about this last night. The fact is, I think Mardell and I have used small lies of this sort quite a bit in raising our children. Sometimes they make it possible to avoid messy, spectacular, tension-building and energy-consuming conflicts with the kids.
When I think about this, a part of me starts to repeat Sunday School lessons: Honesty is always the best policy. This kind of lie is no better than robbing the bank (is it?). This will teach Mardell and I that problems can be avoided by dishonesty. We’ll teach that to our kids. And so forth.
I also feel accompanying church-parent guilt: If I had been a better parent, my kids wouldn’t be so stubborn. They wouldn’t have quirky preferences, wouldn’t throw fits in public, and would quietly obey. I could reason with them (“Sullivan, you can’t tell the difference between strawberry and grape jelly anyway.”) rather than butt heads with them.
And yet, I find it relatively easy to ignore both of these reactions. The fact is, I know that I have to work long hours; Mardell is raising three children, often without much of my assistance; and children can be high-maintenance, stubborn creatures. I reject any idea that all lies are the same or that there is no way of distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable lies. The slippery slope is itself a lie; and I don’t have to have any pre-set dividing lines to believe that Mardell or I can tell Sullivan that his jelly is grape without any increased danger of ever becoming bank robbers.
The real-world consequence of Mardell’s lie was that Sullivan was content with his sandwich, and that she avoided a potential messy, draining fight with a stubborn, determined six-year-old (who is also, I should note, a generally fun, cute, and smart kid). To me, the optimal choice is clear: Lie.
And yet I remain uncomfortable with the ease at which I arrive at this conclusion. And I’m curious: How much of an out-lier (pun intended) am I? Do we all use these kinds of lies? Just how bad are they?