Sometimes telling a lie is the polite thing to do, right? One mom whose son doesn’t quite grasp the delicate art of social “glossing over” riffs on the theme—and hopes you’ll remember her words when the time is right.
WHITE LIES #1 AND #2
Friend: “I’m so sorry we’re late again. It’s just so hard to get out of the house with the kids.”
Me: “Oh, it’s no problem—I just finished making dinner 15 minutes ago, so it worked out.”
WHITE LIES #3 AND #4
Daughter: “I want to go to that playground!”
Me: “The playground is closed because it rained earlier.”
Daughter: “But there are other kids in there.”
Me: “They are breaking the rules.”
WHITE LIES #5 AND #6
Neighbor: “Will you be able to come to the art gallery opening tomorrow night?”
Me: “I’m sorry, the kids are not feeling well and my husband has to work this weekend.”
As you can see, I’m a big fat liar. I’m also the parent of three busy children, one with multiple disabilities. So with these credentials it’s no great leap to say I feel qualified to teach a course on deception— with a special needs angle, of course. Today’s lesson is not just about the art (or necessity) of lying, though. I also hope to impart a little bit of the empathy I’ve found for my special needs child by telling fibs, tall tales, and big fat whoppers.
Some of you are already probably shaking your heads and saying, “She is just using the word ‘lying’ to exaggerate for dramatic effect.” Call it what you want, but I don’t think I’m overstating it to say that we all teach the art of deception to our children in one way or another. For the sake of brevity, I’m going to skip the whole “lying about Santa” and “lying to avoid hysteria” issues (both of which I subscribe to wholeheartedly) and focus for the time being on how lying affects social situations. Consider these exchanges (recognize any?):
Parent: “If you must burp, please try to hide it!”
Child: “He’s bothering me.”
Parent: “Just try to get along, we’re leaving in an hour.”
Parent: “Pretend you like the picture/meal/gift so you don’t hurt her feelings.”
Child: “I don’t want to play at his house.” Parent: “Just make an excuse and say we have plans that day.”
Child, laughing: “I farted!”
Parent: “Shh… Don’t act like it was you or people won’t want to be near you.”
Child: “That food smells gross.”
Parent: “Just be polite and say you like it because they went to a lot of effort.
You can eat more once we get home.”
Parent: “I don’t care if you think her recital is boring. Fake it—it’ll be over in five minutes.”
Hide it, get along, pretend, make an excuse, act, be polite, fake it—all key phrases that teach deception. All important concepts to forging relationships with others and succeeding socially in the world. And all are options that have been offered as advice to my son James, who at 11 years old struggles mightily on the social scene, though he sincerely wants to fit in and have friends like everyone else.
Imagine if you could not tell a lie, that you did not even understand the concept of faking it or pretending, or making an excuse to spare someone’s feelings. Replay the earlier conversations and think about how the friend or neighbor would take it if your response was: “I can’t believe you’re late again. It’s really annoying every time we have to reheat dinner four times waiting for you” or “No, thanks, we’re not really that interested in art shows and would rather lay around the house in our pajamas this weekend.”
All kidding aside, this is not a hypothetical situation for everyone—my son James lives it every day, as do many others with disabilities. James does not understand sarcasm, pretending, and is unable to lie even if he wants to get out of trouble. The following instances are all unfortunately real, and would all be easily avoidable (or at least teaching moments) with a typical child. Imagine what your child’s response would be:
James’s baby brother hands him a cup of pretend juice, eager to practice sharing.
James: “No thanks.”
Me: “He just wants to share with you. Pretend that you want it, you don’t have to drink it.”
James: “But I don’t want it!”
Me: “Just pretend. You’re making him upset.”
James: “But I don’t want the cup. No thanks!”
Baby cries; James gets upset but will not take cup.
Friend: “James, did you like the chicken?”
James: “No thank you.”
Me: “James, that’s very rude!”
James, looking upset: “Okay.”
Friend, graciously: “It’s okay James—it might have been a bit overcooked.”
Younger child at the park: “Hey, do you want to come to my house and play?"
Child stands there.
Me, whispering: “Tell him you are busy playing with your sister, but maybe another time.”
James: “I don’t want to go there another time! Don’t make me!”
Potential friend walks away dejectedly; his mom gives James a dirty look.
James farts loudly in class. Instead of trying to cover it up, James lifts one butt cheek off of the chair to fart wholeheartedly, smiles widely, and gives the class a double thumbs-up. Because farting is just part of life, right?
As you would expect, none of these situations have happy endings. Someone on the receiving end of James’s honesty is usually hurt or offended, and I have often been left trying to make excuses for James while he is off crying about it somewhere. As he gets older, I have been told more and more that James needs to “grow up,” “be nice,” “just try to get along,” or “pretend.”
I feel that it is imperative to point out that this issue is not about manners. James says “Hello, how are you?” and “Thanks for the ride—have a nice day!” to taxi drivers. He says “please” and “thank you” to everyone, and readily compliments friends and strangers alike with “You’re awesome!”, “I like your cool shoes!”, or “I love you!”
In reality, James is just as uncomfortable as the little boy who asked him to come over and play, and he feels sincerely bad when he realizes that his “No I don’t like your chicken” just hurt someone’s feelings. Raising two other typical children, it’s a constant in-my-face irony that my two little liars (said in the most affectionate way) will effortlessly do better socially than my 100-percent honest and sincere child.
Should we be teaching our children to lie at all? Would it be better if we all just told the truth? Shouldn’t I celebrate that my special needs child is so refreshingly honest? Why is sincerity so underappreciated? What’s the best approach to teach “lying” to a special needs child, if for no other reason than to help him navigate a very complex social landscape?
I don’t actually have answers to those questions, only opinions (which would take another five pages to explain). Hopefully, this won’t make you rethink lying (I don’t want to know what you really think of my hairstyle!). I’m definitely not trying to give a lecture on why we should all tell the truth and nothing but the truth. I mean, think about how much harder it would make things, how many friends you might have (or not have), how unhappy you might feel sometimes. And maybe next time you see someone like James struggling to “just get along,” you can hang on to that empathy, lie a little, and act like his brutal honesty doesn’t bother you in the least.
Have you had similar experiences? Whether lighthearted gaffs or gut-wrenching moments of embarassment, no doubt other parents will relate. Share your stories at facebook.com/nymetroparents or on Twitter @nymetroparents #whitelies.
Do you ever wonder what other kids think about your child with special needs? In “Are You Smarter than a Fourth Grader?”, Michaela Searfoorce shares her experience answering questions from her son’s fourth-grade classmates. Read her essay and expert tips to help you talk about your child at: nymetroparents.com/talk