Sunday, 7 November 2010

Good Boys Don't Lie! Or Do They?

Let me tell you a little story...

Once upon a time there was a little boy. I like to think he was 9 at the time, but more likely he was 11. I don't know if it makes any difference, but in case it does, we're all safer assuming he was 11. You may also know that at 11 little boys are just that - little. Unlike little girls who seem to be 21...

But I digress - as I am wont to do.

Just bear with me...

This little boy had a birthday party, and many and varied little friends of his attended. As has always been considered good practice his parents were present as well. Well, most of the time. All the children being little (and presumed good) they did pop out for a short time. Not far, mind. Maybe just to the next door neighbours.

In their absence, a glass was broken. There may have been a little colourful spillage even. Nothing major in any case, but still something that would not go unnoticed. It doesn't really matter who did it, apart from the fact that it wasn't the little boy who was having a birthday party.

Back from wherever it was they popped out to, parents naturally noticed the broken glass and/or the spillage. Also naturally they inquired about it with the little boy. Unfortunately (or maybe not, as we shall see later), they chose to also inquire into "who" did it. Not in any menacing way, to be sure. Just a natural question, asked in a natural, not unfriendly tone of voice. After all, they were very good parents.

The little boy, having been brought up by very good parents was not only (generally) well mannered, but also took all their lessons to heart. Including the one which said that good little boys did not lie. They were always truthful - especially to their parents. So, naturally, and without second thought (little boys seldom have second thoughts, anyway), our little boy told his parents exactly who broke the glass. Simple question, simple enough answer, truth told, all was good.

Or was it? Because, what followed was our little boy being chastised for telling on his friend! Apparently, in this particular circumstance (although it was not said in so many words), the right thing to do was to tell a lie, and claim that it was him, our little boy, who broke the glass, thus saving his friend from embarrassment. Hmm. Strange.

Now, I said that little boys do not have second thoughts. And in fact, I still think that's true, and I don't believe our little boy had second thoughts about this strange event, at least not in the way us grown ups (or are we ever?) have second thoughts. Or analyse things. Or maybe the little boys mind worked a bit like mine does now (still?) and he arrived at conclusions in some kind of gestalt manner? Anyway, read on to learn what the little boy learned from the experience...

If you thought that one of the lessons is that to lie is perfectly OK, you'd be very much mistaken. For whatever reason our little boy realised - then or later - that to lie is truly bad in itself. Or rather - and I think the distinction is important - it is the best policy to tell the truth by default. For one, telling a lie tends to make one have to come up with further lies in order to cover the very first one. While doing this is quite possible, sometimes even necessary, it is hugely inconvenient, and requires too much mental work that could be otherwise put to better use (mostly for keeping the "story" consistent).

But, importantly, there are times when telling a lie is the best course of action one can take. This can be for many reasons - one obviously being to save someone we hold dear from embarrassment. Not that the culprit in the story above was necessarily worth the sacrifice.  However, one may need to tell a lie to save themselves from embarrassment. Case in point: our little story. If you are seen to be expected to be protective of others at your own expense you may safe both your and their face by not telling truth. What's best (worst?) one may even gain extra brownie points if it is obvious one lied to protect another - as convoluted as it may sound...

So, quite contrary to what most parents try to teach their children (i.e. that to lie is bad, period), lying is in fact OK, and may even be rewarded by the same people who on different occasions may tell you something very different. What's more, one can be seen to have lied by all concerned and still come out of the experience with one's social status not only unscathed, but in fact improved. As his mother used to tell his wayward son Albert: "All is relative, Albert, my son!". Indeed.

And now to some indirect, yet possibly more profound, lesson our little boy learned from the experience (or at least backdated the realisations to the incident described above)...

Probably the most important "take home" lesson (even though he was at home at the time) was that no lesson - ever - is to be taken literally and at face value. Regardless of who it comes from. Even the parents. Even the parents who one does not have one iota of a reason to doubt in any way whatsoever. Surely, the more trusted the source the less scrutiny may be required, but everything - everything - is to be questioned and played against all other knowledge and experiences. And - and this most certainly came only later - this exercise is to be repeated at regular intervals. This last thing should really be obvious: the knowledge and experience one plays one's lessons against change daily, thus necessitating re-evaluation of anything we decided based on their content in the past.

Were there more lessons in this seemingly small incident in a small child's life? Probably. One of them might have been that, while you may be required to stick your neck out to protect others (even if only with ulterior motives as described above), you should not expect others to do the same for you (our little boy's friend most certainly did not volunteer his confession). It's essentially a game of chicken, waiting to see if you'll be spared by someone's confession of guilt or whatever is in question. And games of chicken are stupid. So, what you do is try to play your hand first and try to get the most of it, however little trumps it holds.

Finally, could little boy's parents have done any better? I doubt it. It is difficult enough to instil the very basics of manners and social norms into your children as it is. To try to teach an 11 year old the nuances of sometimes lying vs always telling the truth is probably well nigh impossible. The best one can hope for is not to get into a situation where confusing messages may be sent. Taking our little boy's story one way of handling the situation might have been to not ask about the culprit at all - after all at parties things get broken, and nobody is ever really at fault. But, it is only human, and natural to instinctively ask "whodunnit".

So, in hindsight, our little boy never really held the incident against his parents. What's more, in due course he actually begun being thankful for the experience, however confusing for his little mind it was at the time. Luckily, his little mind proved capable of wrestling down this particular problem quite efficiently, and came not only on top, but richer and better for it. Luckily, because at age 11 there is not a parent in this world who can vouch that their child will not take exactly the wrong lesson from such an inconsistency. And, taking the wrong lesson can lead to much suffering later. Maybe even suffering caused by one being tied quite tightly to that horrible human invention that is an electric chair...