I used to think that values were like a package you delivered to your kids that they would receive in the same way. Boy, was I wrong! I’ve come to believe, instead, that each individual is a complicated mix of genetic and environmental factors that receives that same information in very different ways.
Why is it, seemingly, so easy for Emily and Journey to tell the truth, but not so easy for K.J. and Skye? I can’t explain it. What I do know is that the same parents delivered the same lessons in morality to all four kids.
I used to spend a lot of time thinking: What am I doing wrong? Then I would read columns or books or hear talk show hosts promoting a method of dispensing moral virtues to children that was foolproof, and I’d try that method or feel like a failure for having gone about teaching values some other way.
I used to get very angry with the child who lied to me. Then, when she or he lied again and again, I became overwhelmingly sad. But, recently, I’ve moved on to acceptance. Don’t misunderstand. I haven’t accepted the lying. I’ve accepted that telling the truth is harder for them. And I am resigned to be patient and to continue to teach the value of telling the truth because I believe it is of utmost importance.
On Friday, as I was packing boxes for our impending move to another house, I came upon K.J.’s retainer. It was not in the bathroom or by his bed, as I would suspect a retainer to be that was being used. It was buried under a bunch of papers in his desk drawer. So, I texted him:
“K.J., honestly, when is the last time you wore your retainer? I just found it under a bunch of papers in your desk drawer.”
An hour and a half later, K.J. texted back: “A couple nights ago.”
I didn’t believe him. With some other kid, I might have concluded: Question asked and answered. But K.J. has a history of telling his father and me what he thinks we want to hear regardless of the truth.
I responded: “Then explain how it got buried in your desk instead of being in the bathroom where you’d take it out and clean it. I’m asking you to be honest.”
I’ve learned that this process of uncovering the truth will proceed more quickly if I go ahead and present him with the inconsistencies in his story and remind him that I expect a truthful answer.
No response from K.J.
Half an hour later, I texted: “If its been months, you got to tell me months, understand? We’ve got to have trust between us.”
No response for another hour. Then he texted: “I took it out and put it there.”
By then, I was on the way to pick K.J. up from school. I was also on the phone with John to strategize how to respond if K.J. continued to lie. And, there it was – another lie texted from K.J.
I might trick him or trap him. We’ve done that before to get the truth. I might threaten the loss of privileges. We’ve done that too. John suggested I tell him we’ve been thinking he might need to go to Texas, where Skye is, for treatment. I know that sounds pretty harsh. But, you need to understand that we’ve been here many a time before and it can take hours to get K.J. to fess up. He has heard all the reasons for telling the truth. He “knows” better. He will be relieved when he finally lets go of the lies. He always is. But the lesson doesn’t stick…
When K.J. got in the car, I told him I knew he was lying. I also told him that his dad and I had been thinking about sending him to Texas. He said, “I don’t want to go there.” I said, “Then you have to start telling the truth.”
K.J. next told me it was about two weeks since he wore the retainer. I reiterated that I didn’t believe him. I won’t bore you with all the back and forth before K.J., eventually, came clean. It had been months since he wore the retainer.
Then came the inevitable question from me: “Why did you lie?” and K.J’s inevitable answer: “I don’t know.” I told him we were going to sit in the car until he did, that I was done providing him multiple choices answers from which he could pick – and always did. He was too old for that. He knew the answer and he would have to figure it out before we went home. Until he understood why he did what he did, he could not change his behavior.
It took another few minutes before K.J. said, “I don’t like wearing it.”
I asked, “But how does that explain the lying? Why not just say, ‘I don’t like wearing it.’?”
Again came the “I don’t know” and more car sitting.
I explained to K.J. that if he “didn’t know” why he lied, then it could happen any time. His dad and I would have to keep close tabs on him to make sure he stayed on the right path: open doors, supervised computer and Skyping time, etc. He would need to ride with me to pick-up Journey from school because I couldn’t trust him at home alone. I could see from his expression that he didn’t like what I was saying.
A few minutes later, K.J. said, “I knew that you’d be mad that I wasn’t wearing it, and I don’t see the point.”
“So, in other words,” I responded, “you are saying that you lied to keep us from knowing that you were not wearing the retainer because you expected we would then make sure you did the thing you don’t want to do.” I continued, “This wouldn’t be the first time we made you do something you didn’t want to do, would it?”
“Do you understand why we want you to wear your retainer?”
“Yes. So my teeth will stay straight.”
“But you are not convinced, right? You don’t have enough information to see the value in the retainer. Should we call the orthodontist and get more information? Do you see how, if you’d told me that you don’t believe wearing the retainer is important, we could have asked your doctor? With enough information, you might make the decision to wear the retainer. But if you were still not convinced, you could make the case to us that wearing the retainer was not important. In either case, you would not have felt you had to lie.”
From there, we launched into a discussion about the consequences of lying. Okay. Admittedly, I did the vast majority of the talking… I reminded K.J. of others we know who have lied, been caught, and suffered for it. But the main thing I wanted him to hear is what lying does to him INSIDE.
I’ve been made acutely aware of this recently with Skye. Once you lie, you have to remember that lie and to whom it was told the next time you interact with the person. And if you tell different lies to different people, you have more to remember. It’s a lot of work. Then there is the fear of getting caught. Your brain gets full of stories that you have to keep straight. But, worst of all, you begin not to know what the truth is – YOUR truth.
What we have seen with Skye – what Skye is facing now – is the reality that she told different “stories” to different people, each of whom accepted her based on that fiction. She wanted to be accepted and she believes that her lies enabled that acceptance. What has happened recently, is that Skye has been caught telling one of the lies about her past by her peer group and counselors in Texas. She is panicked and fearful to tell the truth. She thinks that telling the FACTS or truth of what happened will bring about dire consequences. John and I have tried to make her understand that we don’t care what the FACTS reveal. What is holding her back is not the FACTS themselves. It’s the fear she has of not being accepted for who she really is.
I wish I could make Skye understand that holding onto the lies is like holding herself in prison. I wish I could make her believe that there is freedom “on the other side,” and it is worth the pain of telling the truth. When you know you are living in your truth – whatever it may be – you can go on. There will always be those who dislike you or disagree with you. But when you live with integrity, doing the best that you can, you can make better decisions. You can see more clearly when to make compromises and when to stand firm. Sure, you can and should continue to learn from other’s perspectives and viewpoints, and they may change your own. But the experience of living your truth, in the present, makes all things possible.
I think it is only fair to confess that I, too, have struggled with being a prisoner of my lies. For a period of time in my twenties, I was under the influence of a man who did not have my best interests at heart – though he convinced me that he did. To protect him and to protect our relationship, I lied to others. This is a much longer story. But, the point is, I hurt myself and I hurt the people who loved me because I was afraid I would lose the man if I told the truth. Eventually, I changed my surroundings and got therapy. I remember how very, very hard it was to let go of the web of deception I had created. Indeed, it was hard even to remember some of the “truth” because it was so painful. But I did. And I will never, ever return to that way of living.
When I say that I want Skye and K.J. to experience the freedom that goes with living in the truth, I know what that feels like. They are young. If they can learn this lesson now, their lives and relationships will be easier, happier, and more satisfying, I suspect. I want that for them. I want that for all of us.