Several months ago my 4-year-old son launched off the couch, did a mid-air karate kick and then stuck the landing with his arms in an upward "V". I commented that his Spider-Man underwear had made him fly far, and then I caught myself — "No, you made Spider-Man fly far. Someday Spider-Man will be wearing your underwear." My other kids laughed at the idea, but my youngest just nodded as if to say, "Yeah, probably."
Because of his delusional confidence, he has mastered many unwise stunts and has, consequently, gotten pretty good at playing the Wii instead. I will confess to him later that there is no Spider-Man but not until the superhero has served my purpose: to convince my son that he can do more than he thinks he can.
Like most children, my son’s confidence is the product of hundreds of purposeful lies.
Now, for some of you, a strategy like this sends up a flag, warning of deception. Well, I am proposing good lies, lies that are not really lies. Where real lies aim to hurt, good lies aim to heal. Where real lies curse, good lies bless.
When a kid is 5 and stammering as a beginning reader, parents don’t say, “I knew it; let’s try math.” We say, “You’re doing a great job.” That is a lie. So what we all do, and I would argue we should do, is think, “You’re doing a great job … for a 5-year-old that is just starting to learn and has watched too much television.” We just leave out the disclaimers.
So, where a real lie is about deception, a good lie is about perception.
We also lie to children by proclaiming what we know will be true later. For example, when mean friends brag to my 9-year-old son about how much taller they are than he is, I just remind my boy that he needs to forgive them because discrimination based on height will be wrong when those guys come asking him for a job in 20 years. Anyone who has played Monopoly with my son knows that is not a lie — it is a prophecy.
So, where lies are about derision, a good lie is about vision. A child should be complimented on his or her potential as if it has already been realized because compliments are often self-fulfilling.
A real lie seeks to offend others, but a good lie seeks to defend others. My daughter believes that all boys are evil. I refuse to apologize for that. Conversely, I tell my boys that all women are ladies. That is, obviously, going to require a follow-up conversation. This is a situation where the moral utility of a temporary lie supersedes that of an unnecessary fact.
As bad lies conceal, good lies reveal. I try to brainwash my kids that they are good readers and that the secret to real superpowers is academics. “Your friends will act like smart kids are nerds because they have been deceived by Dr. Dumb. Think about it, guys. Superman is super because of the advanced technology of his home planet. Iron Man is a marvel because of ingenuity. Batman fights with martial arts he has studied, flies with complex devices he has developed and drives with vehicles he has engineered. I’m not going to lie to you guys. I believe that Clark Kent — who wears glasses, by the way — is so smart he pretends to be Superman to distract from his true superpower: researching. I cannot prove it, but that is probably because he is too clever — because he researches how to hide superpowers.”
Regrettably, with age and disappointment we all see through the smoke. And yet, we still instinctively appreciate and cling to good lies.
I see it in my drama students. Because I direct the theater productions at my school, it’s my job to lie. “You better get your lines memorized because everyone is depending on you!” That’s a lie. The truth would be, “I’m not dumb enough to depend on you, so I have freshmen memorizing your lines in case I have to fire you.” Tact is another name for a purposeful lie.
I say, “If you guys don’t pull it together in this practice, we are all going to look really stupid Thursday night!” That’s true, but I also know that we will likely not look stupid because I will keep scaring them and shaming them until they enter panic mode, which is the only way teenagers function well.
Then the night of the show, I say: “Don’t worry. You are going to be just fine. Just go big and everyone will love you.” Lie. Lie. Lie. The truth would be, “Worry! You are not going to be fine unless I go backstage and beg God for mercy. Ignore the crying.” I also know that, statistically speaking, about one out of every four actors will bomb and develop a lifelong emotional disorder. But the odds for success greatly increase when powered by a good lie, so the moral thing to do is lie.
When the show is over, and, overall, the students have rocked the house, I want to take the microphone and use my booming commercial voice: “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight’s performance is brought to you by … lying. Lying— serving mankind for thousands of years. Lying — because sometimes the truth needs a little help.”
Being someone well versed in the art of moral lying, you might think that I would be immune to the wiles of a kind lie. Honestly, I do have trouble believing my wife’s compliments since I know that she loves me enough to lie to me. But, even me, I still choose to believe her when she tells me I am handsome. We both know that I am handsome … compared to one of those baboons with the raw, red butt. However, it is a good lie and, ironically, that is why I can believe it. If she said, “Gross! Just turn off this movie. Matthew McConaughey looks like one of those red-butted baboons when you’re around,” there is no way I could accept that.
So, as much as a real lie can be destructive and selfish, a good lie will be edifying and selfless. That is the truth.
Brad Clemons is a local contributor and thinks Columbia has a great personality.