The Truth or Not the Truth

Just how flexible is the truth? In American culture, truth is fairly rigid. You are either telling the truth or you are lying and we put a very high premium on telling the truth. I would even venture to say that it is a top American cultural value – being honest, being a person of your word, speaking the truth even when others don’t want us to. Especially that. People who speak the truth in the face of grave personal consequences for doing so seem to me to be venerated as heroes in our culture. We raise our kids to tell the truth in all circumstances (they usually get in much bigger trouble for lying than for doing whatever it is they were lying about) and to tell the truth and “do the right thing” even if others don’t like it.

Not all cultures put such a high value on truth. As a Colombian friend told me “kids are raised here to not say something if it might hurt somebody’s feelings or make somebody feel uncomfortable.” Direct confrontation is also considered rude and aggressive here. For example, if person A is upset with person B, person A will tell person C about it rather than confront person B and have an open conversation. Meanwhile, person A will continue to be nice and polite to person B who has no idea that person A is even upset. I find this very challenging to navigate but it seems to work for people here.

So why am I espousing on the subject of truth? Well, because our oldest daughter who is nine years old seems to be turning not telling the truth into a habit. She stole some chocolate from my stash of dark chocolate bars and then lied about it, repeatedly, even putting on a dramatic display of crying about the fact that we don’t believe her. When we finally confronted her with the evidence found by our housekeeper, chocolate under her pillow, she relented and admitted the truth. We were mad but maybe the kid couldn’t resist the temptation of chocolate. Who hasn’t been there?

That was last week. Today, I received two confirmation emails from Amazon for the purchase of two children’s books, which I did not buy. Jade loves to read and has her own Kindle since getting English language books is expensive and difficult here, but she is not allowed to download books without asking either her dad or myself first. She knows this. Yet she didn’t ask us about purchasing the books. She just did it. And then she lied about it when I asked her. She lied repeatedly, while looking me in the eyes. She even tried the dramatic crying thing, but I just looked at her and said, “Cut it out. I don’t believe you.” She stopped right away.

So what to do? Is this normal nine year old behavior of testing boundaries? Or is she acting out something else? And beyond that, how do we address lying while living in a culture that is not so strict about telling the truth. The kids came home from school a few days ago saying that their teachers lied during the fieldtrip hike. They told the kids that they had to walk 15 more minutes when they still had over an hour and a half left. This was clearly a lie to the kids and they were upset with the deception.

Our oldest daughter also regularly tells us that her teacher lied because she said she would do something and then she did not do it. With this definition of lying, lying is common place here. People regularly don’t do what they say they will do. In my adult mind, this is lack of follow through. In my kids’ mind, this is lying.

I also notice that my kids have started to lie to make others feel better. On several occasions recently, when our youngest daughter, who is not yet two, started to cry because she saw that I was going out somewhere without her, her older sisters started  inventing elaborate lies to make her feel better. “Mom is not really going out. She is just putting on her shoes so that her feet don’t get cold.” Say what?

“No,” I said. “I am going out for a few hours but I will be back. Saige, I love you and I love spending time with you but I also need to spend some time alone with daddy. I will be here when you wake up in the morning and we will spend the whole day together.”

Saige cried when I said that but I would rather she express her feelings about the truth (that we are going out without her and she doesn’t like it) than feel betrayed by a lie. Of course I also knew that she would stop crying about twenty seconds after we left. And I was right.

But back to my kids and how to raise them with the American standards for truth telling that I subscribe to in a culture that has different standards. How do I get the point across when they see different examples all around them? For now, I made a big deal out of consequences. I took away her beloved Kindle for two weeks; she will have to pay us back for the books she ordered out of her savings; and she had to write a page about why it’s bad to lie and why she did it. (Hey, we might as well practice English as long as we are at it.)

These are the consequences for now, but what will be the long term consequences of living in a culture very different from our own? How do we handle our kids being exposed to values that are very different than ours? And what about when these values are really important to us? For now, I am just continuing to live in the questions….

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