Lying to Children
We are all liars. Every single one of us. Fibbers. Fakers. Phonies. Frauds. Pretenders. Deceivers.
We tell lies to children.
Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy — that’s just the beginning. Later we get creative. My aunt Sylvia told my eight-year-old self that the reason her fingers were so bent was because she slammed them in the car door. She figured a child couldn’t handle the concept of arthritis. (But I was super careful about car doors for the next twenty years – that’s how long it took me to figure out that she was fibbing.)
My mother came up with “Burpman”.
“If you don’t say ‘excuse me’ after you burp, the Burpman is going to get you.”
I sort of envisioned Burpman as Batman’s younger brother – all the cool super-hero jobs were taken so he got stuck with chasing down impolite children who failed to excuse themselves after public belching.
We teach children that it is wrong to tell lies, that the bible even says it in the ten commandments (OK, well, it really is talking about bearing false witness, which is more like lying under oath – but we all know, semantics aside, divine beings don’t want us telling fibs).
And yet, we lie, lie, lie – oh the shams, the deceits, the pretenses, the mendacities, the falsehoods.
As indignant ten-year-olds we solemnly promise we will NEVER tell our children lies; we will always be completely honest.
And then it happens. The earth-shattering event that forever divides us from the ranks of youth, when we realize we are on the “other side.” We have joined the enemy. We grow up.
We are adults.
That pivotal moment happened for me on an October morning at a High School in Hayward. I was fresh out of college and had just started substitute teaching. I thought I could be the cool teacher, the one who treated the kids with respect, like they were equals; after all, I wasn’t that much older than them myself.
But the whole “treating kids with respect” thing didn’t work out so well. Particularly when the computer class somehow managed to pry up the keys on the keyboard and rearrange them to read “FUCKYOU.” That’s when it hit me. I was no longer one of them.
I was an adult.
I had things at stake that depended upon my being able to make children behave in a socially acceptable manner. I had “responsibilities.” And children don’t care about adults’ “responsibilities.”
That is when I started lying to children.
It started small, with “arbitrary rules” while I was still subbing.
“No, Judy, you can’t go to the restroom. Mr. Gibber left a note saying no one was allowed a hall pass. No, I don’t know why. Well, you’ll just have to hold it. Well, if you mess yourself you’ll feel pretty embarrassed, won’t you?”
It was self preservation. Nothing to be proud of, just get me through the day without letting the students wreak havoc (which is what all children secretly hope for — that chaos they can achieve when the adult in charge loses control of their evil little mob). Just get me to the next paycheck without getting fired for allowing Johnny to set off the fire alarm and sprinkler system.
But you can only do so much with teenagers. They know too much (or at least they think they do). They are too wary. They’ve discovered at least one truth about Santa Claus, they know their parents aren’t perfect, and they can deal with technology faster than most people over the age of thirty. They are arrogant. You can’t tell any really big whoppers to teenagers.
It’s the little ones we really mess with.
I suppose it runs in the family.
My grandfather told my mother that his father (her great-grandfather, for those paying attention) was, in fact, an Orangutan. This was to explain why he (my grandfather) had orange chest hair. Mind you, he told her this when she was a wee bairn, maybe five or six. It didn’t occur to her to question this fabrication until she was sixteen and sitting in a science class, when the teacher told the class that animals couldn’t mate outside their own species. She sat in stunned silence as the truth dawned on her: she was not descended from Orangutans.
My grandfather was the master prevaricator. He mixed truth and falsehood so well you never knew where reality ended and the pretense began. He was in the OSS during WWII, he had a Geisha Girlfriend, he knew Jimmy Hoffa (after his death we did find a lighter with Mr. Hoffa’s name etched in it).
We used to play a game with him called “Bullshit” (most nice people called the game “Cheat” – but that was not nearly as fun as having an excuse to cuss). In the game you put cards face down in a certain order and declared out loud what they were. If someone called ‘Bullshit’ on you, you had to reveal the cards, and if you cheated, you had to take the whole pile. Grandpa always cheated.
So now I continue the long and venerable tradition of lying to children. I consider it an art form.
While I was teaching martial arts I worked barefoot and, as I have two toes stuck together on my right foot, my mutant digits frequently incited questions from my pupils. My explanations ranged from the silly: “I dropped glue on my toes and they stuck!” to the ridiculous: “It means I am part fairy, but I left my wings at home” to the alarming: “I didn’t listen to my teacher and this is what happened.”
I lie to children for many reasons. Many times, it’s just because I can; I delight in watching their little faces light up as I, the great and powerful adult, tell them something fanciful and unbelievable about their world and swear it is so.
I lie because, like my Aunt Sylvia, I think the truth is sometimes just too complicated for them.
I lie because it is not my place to discuss certain things with a child I’m not related to. (“Ms. Wendy, what’s the difference between boys and girls?” “Uh…”)
And I lie because the world is a horrible place. There are wars, and rape, and divorce, and kidnappings, and hurricanes, and tsunamis, and cancer, and terrorists, and Santa Claus doesn’t actually know or care who was naughty or nice; he doesn’t actually give children who are good more presents. Wealthy Christian kids get lots of toys whether they are good or bad, and poor Christian kids get fewer toys, if any; non-Christian kids don’t even get Christmas but still have to put up with six weeks of Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” at the mall, and the world just isn’t fair, after all, and if I can give them one more hour of peace and calm before they, too, have to cross over to this side, to the grown-up side, well, I can live with being a liar.
I might even try to get really good at it.