It was 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday when Tristan stumbled out of bed, into the living room, and announced that he’d had four cans of soda last week when he was only supposed to have two.
A quilt was wrapped around his shoulders, and on his face was a shit eating gap-toothed grin, his mouth half open. I looked at him, and he raised his eyebrows, his face seemed to say, “What do you think of those apples.”
I’m not sure what Tristan was hoping to get out of this announcement. It almost seemed like he wanted praise for his cunning. He acting like I was going to laugh about it, and tell him how smart he was. And indeed, the way he strutted to the breakfast table in nothing but Avengers underwear, a quilt around his shoulders, he reminded me of a cocky pro-wrestler. One of the bad guys who had done something shameless just before the match, and was now smiling as the audience booed.
Tristan sat down next to me, and as he did, I said, “Yesterday, when we went to KFC, and I asked if you’d had all your pop for the week, you said ‘no’. Did you lie to me?”
That question wiped the smirk off his face faster than I expected, and he dipped his buzzed head down and fixed his eyes on the table. I sat there in silence for some time, waiting for an answer. Eventually he said, “I don’t know.”
My son is smart. Or at least I think he is. He’s in second grade, but he reads at a 4th grade level. He can already do things on the iPad that I can’t. He talks very eloquently for his age, and he asks good questions. However, he is really fond of playing dumb, and it pisses me off. Every time he does something wrong, and I confront him, he says, “I don’t know,” or “I can’t remember.” Both answers are total bullshit. I know this because I used the same strategy as a child and I know that pretending to have a bad memory places a parent in a hard spot. Because frankly, what I wanted was a confession. I wanted him to admit to doing something wrong, tell me he was sorry, and accept his punishment, so that I could get back to reading Facebook posts and eating Frosted Flakes. But that’s not how kids roll, at least not my kids. In this moment, he was trying to find a way out of a punishment, a middle ground between admitting wrong and flat out lying again.
I asked him again, “Did you lie to me?”
He still wouldn’t look me in the eyes. “I… I…” He was stammering now, “Can’t remember.”
I repeated the question a few more times, calmly, and each time he stuck to his story of having a bad memory. And as we spoke I thought about a few things. I thought about how I wanted him to be honest with me. I thought about how I wanted him to understand the importance of honestly. I didn’t really care that he had extra soda, that’s not what all this was about. It was about helping him to understand trust and how honestly leads to it. But how do you teach a 7-year-old something that weighty? I wondered if punishing him too hard would just make him lie more, or become a better liar. That’s what happened with me. I started to realize that lying was always better than getting caught. I didn’t want that for him, but at the same time I felt a punishment was needed.
I thought about all the lies I told my grandmother, the woman who raised me as a teen. I lied about where I went, who I spent my time with, what I had for lunch, my grades, and my girlfriend. Sometimes it felt like I lived a double life, one at home where I was an upstanding kid, and one at school where I had a foul mouth and bad grades. I wondered if this moment with my son would be the catalyst. Would this be the moment that I pushed him towards a long string of stupid teenage lies that would make my hair fall out and my waist expand, and by the time he left the house, I would be crazy and suspicious and fearful of the next generation to run America.
Frankly, I was as nervous about screwing this conversation up as he was about getting caught.
“Tristan,” I said, “I really doubt that you forgot.”
“I did!” he insisted. “When you asked me at KFC, I couldn’t remember how many cans I’d had.”
“But just now, when you got up, you remembered. So you felt it was best to announce it?”
Tristan looked down, and suddenly I was stuck with a new fear. I wondered if I’d just taught him to hide his lies, when what I wanted to teach him was not to lie at all. I know this all sounds silly, but sometimes, as a parent, I am placed in these sticky situations where I feel enormous pressure to know just what to do and say, and frankly I don’t, so I wing it and then, months later, assume that I’ve crippled the kid for life.
I thought for a moment.
“Listen,” I said. “I’m just going to assume that you lied. I’m not mad about the soda. I’m mad because you lied to get it. Listen, being trustworthy is a big deal. It means that people know that you will hold to your values. It means that you will have more freedoms. I don’t know if all of this makes sense to you now, but one day it will. For right now, I’m going to say this. I’m not happy that you lied, but I’m happy that you told me about it. One of the best things you can do is admit when you do something wrong. Next week, you only get one can of soda rather than two. If you hadn’t told me what you did wrong, I would have taken away all your soda for the next week.”
Tristan didn’t cry like I expected him too, rather he walked into his room without saying a word. I’m not sure if what I said had a lasting impact. So often as a parent all I can do is sit back, think about what I said, and hope I did the right thing. This was one of those moments.
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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress, and an angry baby girl. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His work has been featured in Good Morning America, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, Fast Company, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.