The Fine Art of (a 7‑Year‑Old’s) Deception
It started when my mobile began hiccupping text message alerts, one after another, for no particular reason. This is unusual, because I am not a teenager exchanging rapid-fire gossip with my friends; I am the kind of person that has a more intimate text message friendship with my bank than with human beings. But even the bank doesn’t want to talk to me this much. Once I had time to look, it was clear that I was having a lot of fun in Apple’s online iTunes shop. All told, I had apparently bought more than US$600 of online entertainment.
Too bad, I hadn’t actually been shopping online that evening.
So there I was, combing my mind for the moment someone must have stolen my credit card. Or worse, wondering who had compromised my iTunes password. I looked online for clues to what must certainly have been a massive data breach. But, far from being subject to the whims of a hacker or identity thief in some far-flung location, in this case, the fraud was coming from inside the house! To be more specific, my daughter – who knew from multiple warnings not to buy things in iTunes – ran up this enormous bill buying her favorite shows for no particular reason.
And here my wife and I were, again, confronting the fine art of deception as practiced by a seven-year-old. Is this normal? How should I confront the thief in the Frozen pajamas? My daughter has a casual relationship with truth on some occasions. While she is a sweet and caring child, she seems at home with the occasional lie. As parents, this definitely disturbs my wife and me. Am I not supposed to be raising an honest and ethical child? Is she picking this up from the white lies we adults tell one another each day? Or is it the usual suspect: television?
I am fairly certain the truth is duller than we wish. Within every family – even those with annoyingly cheerful Facebook and Instagram bubbly, smiling photos – lurks the dark truth. Our kids are thieves, flawed and striving young people finding their way as best they can. So what do we do about it? Is deception a sign of street-smarts and wisdom that will serve them well? Or am I compelled to unearth every lie, no matter how small?
I wrestled with these questions even as I frantically contacted Apple to reverse the charges (which, I am happy to report, they did without any difficulty). Then I remembered back to when I was seven years old myself. It was 1984, and the Sarajevo Winter Olympics were set to begin. My family and I were in a drugstore in the small town where I grew up. I saw the orange Sarajevo pin and put it in my pocket. When I got to the car I showed my parents the pin I had stolen, quite proud of myself. Of course, my horrified parents made me walk back into the store, return the pin worth no more than 10 rupees, and apologize to the store manager.
And there it is. Behind the images of perfection lies the boring truth. We’re all imperfect as children. And our children are themselves imperfect! Surprising, right? Learning to lie is not a goal parents have for their kids. But helping our children navigate their mistakes and the consequences of their various acts of deception is more useful than expecting them to be perfect.
I ended up telling my daughter that there will be times when no one knows whether she has lied or not. She will be successful in telling a lie—to a friend, to a teacher, or to me. Someday, the person will not pick up on the deception, and she’ll feel powerful. I also told her she may actually think the lie is a good thing, designed to protect someone she cares about.
But then came the warning: I told her that, of course, one person will always know if she lies: she, herself. I told her that she should never lie to her own heart, even if she can figure out a way to lie to me, because being true to oneself is the most important thing of all. My guess is we’ll be down this road in the not too distant future with some future cover up. Indeed, I am probably expecting too much from a child to seek this much introspection at this age. At the same time, I still believe the best way to teach a child is to empower them to own their actions and to judge themselves on their conduct.
After all the greatest measure of our ethics isn’t if we act proper in public. Rather, it comes when we do the right thing when no one else is watching or would find out.