The Lying Game

A Jason manford comment made me think recently. (I know, it’s surprising.)

The quote was a version of the following: That when an adult asks what he thinks happens after death he says he doesn’t know but probably nothing. When a kid asks the same, he can’t help but talk about heaven and angels and fluffy clouds.

And I was so grateful to have a faith. Not because I think I’m better than anyone else, or that my answer has more validity than yours, but because I believe in absolute honesty with my son. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of things he doesn’t need to know. But if you listen to their questions carefully, most children want an answer you can give in an age appropriate way. When a three year old asks where babies come from, the answer ‘Mummy’s tummy’ will normally suffice. When they point to a man sleeping rough on the street and ask why he’s asleep¬†on the floor, your child probably won’t question you further if you tell them he doesn’t have a house. And if they do question further? Well then that’s ok too. I’m comfortable to keep giving information layer by layer until their curiosity is satisfied. I see it as a privilege actually.

But I wouldn’t know how to begin to look a child in the eyes and tell them that there is nothing else but this world. To tell them that grandpa has been buried in the ground and that’s it. If that’s really what I believed, that this world is all we have, that our actions are meaningless outside of the eighty or so years on earth we are given, I would not only be at a loss for answers to my children, but I think I’d find it pretty hard to get out of bed myself.

Why do good things happen to bad people? Why does tragedy strike the most worthy of us? Why do some people have to live with illness, or poverty, or heartbreak? The answer that the world is random, that things just occur for no discernible reason is just not good enough, even for me, let alone for an inquisitive child whose favourite word is why.

But truthfully, if I COULD look myself in the mirror and accept those facts as random and meaningless, I would try and explain those beliefs to my children too. We want to protect our kids from painful truths, so we try and sugarcoat things. I get that. But in my world, where I’m not even that comfortable with the tooth fairy, (unless everyone concerned is very clear it’s a game, and it’s all done with lots of heavy winking and tones of jest to make that really evident) I’m not interested in putting an icing glaze on the big issues.

I saw a forum conversation recently about how to explain death to a 3 year old. The answers were really helpful to the original poster, but I read the entire thread in my usual judgemental way, and was left unsettled when I finished. “We told our son that grandpa lives on the moon.” “We told our daughter that auntie Beth is a star now, and then we chose a star for them to look out for so they could wave at her.” “We told our kids that their great grandma moved to Australia, which is really far away so we won’t be able to see her any more. After all, why upset them?” “Our twins were only just three, so we just told them that grandma was feeling too poorly to see them – after a while they stopped asking.”

I don’t doubt that these answers cause less upset in the short term, and maybe by the time they realise you are lying to them, (because that’s what you’re doing, it’s not sugarcoating, it’s lying) the immediate pain of the persons passing is over, or they can deal with it in a more mature way, but what of your relationship with your kids? Their trust in you to be able to face the hard situations with them as well as the straightforward or enjoyable? It seems to me that when the real answers come out, all your kids have learned is that death and dying is something to be so afraid of that it’s better to make up a story than talk about the truth.

For me, death doesn’t need a sense of magic or fantasy. And the truth is, it’s a matter of faith pure and simple. At some point, you have obviously come to your own convictions about what happens after you die, so why not have the strength to share these with your child? I feel lucky to believe in heaven, but I would still start this important conversation with the disclaimer that “no one knows for certain what happens when a person dies but I believe…” As long as your child leaves the conversation knowing that the person who is gone isn’t in pain, isn’t sad, and isn’t scared, so they don’t have to be either, what are you worried about?

The meaning of death and dying, along with illness, sex, and any number of other words, are our responsibility to teach. They are brand new concepts to our children. They aren’t inherently scary words to be afraid of. They are whatever we want them to be. Do we want them to be a lie? Surely it’s our job to teach not only the meanings of the words, but also the emotional responses to these facts of life, in a clear and open way without relying on the quick fix of deception.

That’s how I feel today anyway. Ask me again when my boy loses his first tooth and I don wings and a sparkly pen to creep into his bedroom and retrieve it.

tooth fairy

Let’s Be Honest

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For a brief period during university, I had my only ‘student’ job, face to face fundraising on the streets of London, or as its more commonly (and delightfully) referred to as, charity mugging, or chugging.

It taught me a lot. About the business side of charity, about the psychology of working for a good cause, about the actual charities I was working to raise money for. But most it all, it taught me about lies.

Like many aspects of life, it is best summed up by quoting Chandler from Friends, this time as he explains to his wife: “It’s always better to lie, than to have the complicated discussion. … except with you!”

There is no doubt that lies are convenient. Need to get off the phone? Oh, my battery is dying. Need to get out of an awkward conversation? Hang on, I just remembered I have to meet someone. Forgot to reply? I never received your email.

In psychology, these kind of lies are referred to as ‘Butlers’. They stand between you and the person you are talking to, as a middle man, making the excuses for you,. Lies are essentially buffers so that you don’t have to hurt people’s feelings by telling the truth, which is more often than not simply, “I don’t want to talk to you.” And socially, there isn’t really anything wrong with that. If we went around telling everyone how boring their boyfriend drama was, or how little time we wanted to spend hearing about their kids new nursery…. We wouldn’t have many friends left to lie to.

But these white lies have become human nature. And what surprised me so much as a chugger, was how many times I was lied to daily, and for no social convention whatsoever. After all, I was never going to see these people again. I wasn’t a relative, a friend, or even an acquaintance. We share no mutual friends, I don’t know what area they live in or even their first names. We are as much strangers as you can be with another human (who you actually know exists) and we will probably spend no more than 3 or 4 seconds out of our lives in each other’s company. Additionally, I wasn’t asking them a personal question, or for their opinion on my choice of footwear or my haircut. No one needed to worry about offending me. Fundraisers are very clearly working, and while often need the sign ups quite desperately to hold onto their jobs, are rarely if ever personally offended by the 99% of people who keep on walking by. (To put this into perspective, if we achieved around 4 or 5 sign ups between 10am-6pm, the day was considered extremely successful.)

And yet without any understandable psychology behind it, 9/10 times people choose to lie. So let’s put aside all the BS for a minute and just be completely honest. I’m off duty, I’m out of the fundraising game, and to be really straight with you- I just don’t care. But whether you are reading this on a tablet or a phone, or on a computer or a laptop, at home or at work, here is a fact. The amount may vary from household to household, but we can all afford to donate per month to any given charity.

You just don’t want to.

We said it! It has been said. We’d rather have the beer with our mates, the coffee with a friend, the subscription to the magazine, the cleaner or the childcare or the wrap from the cafe across the street. In some rare cases, it may take more of a sacrifice, but we still choose to have the extra item on the grocery shop or the variation in our wardrobe choices.

And here’s the amazing thing, no one cares! No one minds. In fact, everyone agrees! We all make choices about our money and where we want it to go. These are all totally reasonable choices, necessities or extras alike. We all believe that we should treat ourselves, or our kids or friends, often before we look elsewhere. And every human on the planet weighs up whether something is a good enough cause to be worthy of our time and certainly of our money. After all, the greatest philanthropist in the world does not give arbitrarily to anyone who asks.

Everyone has their own personal soft spots, myself included. (I wouldn’t go giving me any kind of precious object to look after for example, without being aware I may well pawn it at some point to buy a homeless teenage boy a three course meal.) I am clearly not a cruel heartless person. But I will freely admit here in front of all my millions of avid readers, that I would rather go to Starbucks than save any kind of animal species on a monthly basis. If you stop me in the street and expect me to start welling up as you tell me about abandoned puppies, you have severely misjudged your audience. I am already planning on asking for extra hazelnut syrup.

And before I had worked in face to face fundraising, I probably would have done exactly what you do. Pick up an imaginary phone call, bark out that I’m late for a meeting, tell the fundraiser that I would stop and talk to them on my way back down the road. Or on the off chance that they got me in conversation for more than those few seconds, argue that I really couldn’t afford even ¬£2 a week, which was such a shame as it sounded like an excellent cause. I would look it up on the internet when I got home, and discuss it with my other half. Did they have a brochure or a card?

Now, I save us both some time and say something revolutionary. “No thank you.” If I’ve started talking too early and don’t have to break my stride I may add, “I’d be wasting your time.”

It costs nothing, it doesn’t offend, and best of all-it’s the truth.

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