Several years ago when my daughter, S, was in third grade, her school had a technology fund raiser. These particular funds were raised by students selling items from the Sally Foster Catalog. Of course, there were incentives designed to motivate the students to sell. If a student collected X dollars, that student got to choose a prize from X level. If a student collected Y dollars, then that student chose a prize from Y level. S immediately saw what she wanted: A plastic coin-sorter slash bank in the shape of a combination lock. So, she sold what she needed to sell in order to meet the prize eligibility requirements.
A couple of weeks after the fundraiser was over, she picked up her prize. When I got home from work that day, she showed me how it worked and showed me how to do the combination. She was just so excited about it. About 8:00pm, her brother, Z, got hold of it and attempted to open it without using the combination. He succeeded, but broke it in the process. S was devastated. Cried and cried and cried. Now, S is a worry-wart. She frets and worries about things and works herself up to the point where she’s crying…usually about things that MIGHT happen tomorrow or next week. I knew that if I didn’t tell her something, she’d be up all night fighting back tears. So I told her that we’d take the sorter-slash-bank back to school, tell Mr. C (the guy who is in charge of the incentives) we discovered it was broken when we opened it, and ask if another could be ordered. This calmed her down and she was able to get a decent night’s sleep.
The next morning, I was thinking about it some more and, on our way to school, we talked about lying. I told her that I really really wanted her to have her sorter bank, because she worked so hard for it and it wasn’t fair that her brother broke it. But I also told her that I was afraid I would be teaching her a wrong lesson by lying about the circumstances of the damage in order to get what we want. What’s more, I told her that if we tell Mr. C that it was broken though carelessness, there’s a chance that he’d refuse to order another one because, hey, we didn’t take care of the one we had. She looked me right in the eye and said, “Dad, I know lying is wrong, but it’s just this one time.” Right away, my fears about her being taught a wrong lesson were solidified and it hit me like a hammer.
“Honey, is killing someone wrong?”
“Sure it is, Dad.”
“OK, but what if we did it just once? Just this one time?”
“No. Killing is wrong.”
“That’s right. So how is that any different from lying…just this once?”
“Because lying isn’t the same as killing someone. Besides, we’re talking about a plastic bank, not someone’s life.”
“True, but the idea is exactly the same. It’s wrong to lie/kill/steal/cheat, but it’s ok if we only do it just this one time. Does that sound right to you?”
“So we’ll tell Mr. C the truth. That your brother broke it.”
“But what if he won’t order another one?”
“Then…we’ll kill your brother. Just this once. Honey, I don’t know what we’ll do. Maybe we’ll make Z give you his allowance until we can go buy another one on our own.”
We arrived at school and she went to her room, while I made my way to Mr. C’s office. I told him the truth about what happened, and asked if it were possible to get another one. He said, “Sure. I’ll return this one as “damaged upon receipt” and order a new one. Fill out this form and you’ll get it when it comes in.” I thanked him and left.
I remember how that got me thinking about the role that that lies play in our society. Clearly, there was no thought involved in Mr. C’s choice to mark the item “damaged upon receipt,” even though he knew that wasn’t that case. Just as there wasn’t any thought involved when I initially told S that we’d tell Mr. C that the sorter bank was broken when we got it. Reflexively, the instinct was to lie in order to get what we wanted. Lie to win. If lying is so ingrained…so indoctrinated into our culture…why is so much time and effort spent trying to tell children that lying is wrong? Aren’t they just going to grow up and make decisions about what’s “OK” to lie about and what isn’t anyway?