The average person lies 3000 times a day. It’s a fact. Well okay, it’s not a fact, it’s a lie, but, like with real columnists, I wanted you to think of me as an expert on the subject. What’s true is that according to a 2002 study conducted by the University of Massachusetts, 60% of adults can’t have a ten minute conversation without lying at least once, and that lying makes you appear at least 12% more interesting to members of the opposite sex. One of those two stats is also a lie.
The other day I told my 19 month old son a lie. I told him the lamps in the store were broken so we didn’t have to turn them on and off for the rest of the day, and so began my slide into the deluge of lies I will inevitably tell him over the course of his life. I am prepared for it. As a middle-aged man I have long ago grown comfortable with the fact that sometimes it’s better to tell a lie than to hurt someone’s feelings, or even just to perk up a boring conversation. I have also comforted myself with the fact that this is true because someone much smarter than me proved it is.
Immanuel Kant looked closely at society’s long-held moral principle that, “it is a duty to tell the truth” and suggested that it would, if taken unconditionally and singly, make any society impossible. To show this he created a scenario, in which he asks you, the reader, to imagine that you live in an isolated house in the woods. You are all alone, when you hear a loud knocking on the door one night, and you open the door. A terrified man (let’s call him Bakkies Botha) stumbles in, screaming that he is being chased by a murderer who is trying to kill him. “Hide me!” he sobs. So you do. You lock him in the basement and go back upstairs.
Later there’s another banging on the door. This time, when you open it, the murderer stands there with his weapon, angry and clearly intent on violence – for the sake of comedy, let’s assume he is beloved TV icon from the 80s, “Zet”. Zet describes Bakkies Botha in detail – Two metres tall, played for the Springboks, has the face of three day old road kill. “Do you know where that man is?” Zet asks. According to Kant, if we want to be truly moral, we have a duty to say “Yup, he’s in the basement”. You see Kant is arguing that in order for us to be good, decent people it is our duty to avoid moral ambiguity and to always tell the truth. Zet has the moral duty not to murder, and we are not responsible for what he does with the honest answer we give him. For Kant, lying really is black and white. Probably why they called him a Kant.
Since my son was born, I have thought about the concept of lying in some detail, and therefore feel no shame in the fact that I lied to a toddler simply to avoid switching a store lamp on and off, for hours on end, until the cashiers tossed us in the street. I have concluded that I am happy to use lying as a parental aid if it helps him to go through life a little less upset, or if it makes parenting fractionally easier.
It is, for instance, going to be much easier for me to say, “If you want to grow up big and strong, you have to eat your vegetables”, than what I really mean, which is, “your size is mostly genetically predetermined, as is much of your well-being. Eating your veggies is just one factor in a thousand unknowables that may affect health. The question of your mortality is highly arbitrary. You may never grow up at all, but eat your veggies because maybe they help, and they are a lot cheaper than the meat you like so much.”
When he catches me snacking, and asks what I am eating, I will always say, Brussel sprouts, Spur will only be open on his birthday, and “Barney the Dinosaur” definitely causes cancer.
I know that there are still parents out there determined to be totally honest with their children all of the time, never once deviating from the truth, and if they intend to be like that, I would urge them to remember some of these things:
“The dog went to go live on the farm” should be, “Bongo is dead and probably in a rubbish bin behind the vet”. “You are the most special, wonderful child in the world” is statistically unlikely. And instead of saying, “Mommy or daddy knows best”, just admit, “We haven’t a clue what we are doing, and don’t understand the long term consequences of most of what we say either”.
In the end I think it’s obvious that you too should lie to your kids. People who are lied to as children are more popular in the work environment when they grow up, earn more and live an average of 2.3 years longer. They don’t, or at least they might, but I have no proof for that, but then I think you get the point by now.