The lying game
As his children discover the joys of telling porkies, Gordon Smith realises there is yet another element to the parenting job description: lie detector
THERE'S a moment in every child's life when they make a major discovery that the world they see and how they talk about it don't always have to be one and the same thing. Actually, let me put it more bluntly than that: they learn to lie.
I realised my son had made this breakthrough when just before bedtime recently, I came into his room to find him with blue marker streaks across his face and a similarly coloured tiger pattern up and down his legs. When I asked how this had happened, he said - and I quote - "it was the adventurous flea". Never mind his giveaway grin at being caught blue-handed, his attempt at a cover-up was pretty laughable. He's only four, in fairness, but it was the fact that he even tried to find an excuse which made the biggest impression on me (almost as big as the marker had made on him - it took three days and several heavy scrubbings for all traces of the ink to finally disappear).
Up until two months ago, we only ever heard the absolute unvarnished truth about whatever he happened to be thinking or doing. His opinions on food ("I don't like it") or toilet events ("I did my poo") were shouted loudly, whether we'd asked for them or not.
Somewhere along the way since then, his thought processes have been rewired and he realises that fiction is a viable and often enjoyable alternative to fact. Now, I can lob any kind of random question at him and I'm no longer guaranteed to get the truth served back to me. The other day, I watched him attempt his usual stunt of vaulting from one sofa to the other, only to fall short of his intended target and bump his knee. In the micro-seconds before unleashing a howl of pain, his brain seized on a chance for extra devilment: he ran screaming into his mum in the next room, not to recount an accurate version of events but to blame his sister for hitting him. This despite me witnessing the whole scene, and his sister wasn't anywhere nearby, let alone involved.
Speaking of my daughter, she has become deviously capable of the casual fib. I'm still surprised, though I probably shouldn't be, that her first reaction to some innocuous question is often to tell a porky. Most dinner times, the following scenario plays out: I call the kids to the table, telling them to wash their hands. Aisling usually arrives first. I ask if she has washed her hands. She says yes, while shifting uncomfortably and not-so-subtly putting her hands behind her back. Sensing deception, I ask to smell her hands. She retreats to the bathroom to apply the soap and water that she had somehow missed on her first trip.
I almost admire how she has honed her craftiness over time; lately she goes to the bathroom and dry-rubs the soap with her hands, ensuring they're sufficiently fragrant to pass the smell test. I know this because I slyly followed her one day. When she saw me, a guilty smile crept across her face. It still didn't force a confession from her - instead, she told me: "I'm just checking the soap".
Where does this instinct for invention come from? Maybe we should be looking in the mirror: after all, parents don't exactly have a spotless record in the honesty department. Every year, grown-ups the world over breathe fresh life into the story of a jolly fellow with a white beard and a red suit who delivers presents to children who behave themselves. Pretty much everyone the world over is on board with the idea, which creates a fantastic atmosphere around the magic of the season. For my own selfish ends, however, I used more or less the entire month of December as my chance to remind the kids repeatedly to be good for Santa's impending arrival. I'm not ashamed to admit I milked it at every possible opportunity. My wife didn't approve, but I wasn't about to pass up a month's free parenting.
It's said the first casualty of war is truth. Parenting isn't like going into battle - most of the time - and it's not exactly a fair fight in any case. By virtue of having been around the block a couple of times, adults come with a built-in lie detector that goes off whenever our offspring are stretching the truth. But they don't know that we know. I wonder why, after being rumbled the first couple of times, more kids don't decide for themselves: 'Okay, making stuff up isn't really going as I'd planned. Mum and dad can see right through me, so I'm probably better off sticking to telling the truth and being good.' If only.
What's more, smaller children haven't developed this skill, so they don't know when their elders are being economical with the truth. After all, we've been practising since we were their age. Regular readers of this column will know that my parenting style owes more to TV characters like Walter White and Homer Simpson than is strictly necessary. When I find myself needing to spin a story for my kids and keep a straight face while doing so, I turn to Seinfeld's George Costanza for advice: "It's not a lie if *you* believe it."