On Children and Honesty

On Children and Honesty by Sasha Tucker Photo by Zoe Oppenheimer

My whole life, my father has had two rules for me—two main rules, at least. One, never post anything on the internet that you would not want a future employer to see, and two, be completely honest with everyone, all the time.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had more reason to think about the first rule. The idea of shaping my online presence seemed trivial before, but with so much of my life so easily accessible on social media, I’m grateful that I instinctively think twice before I post.

The second rule, however, is timeless advice. The second rule is protection from scandal, from cheating, and from being labeled “untruthful.” The second rule has taught me to regard “liar” as the ultimate insult and “duplicitous” the ultimate condemnation. I have grown up attempting to be 100 percent transparent (a feat that comes with its own challenges), and as a result I have taken for granted the honesty of my family, peers, and the media.

As a child, I was shocked when I discovered that adults had lied to me. These were never lies that had any real consequences, but rather tales told to appease a pestering child; I was unharmed (although miffed) by the story of the tooth fairy and other white lies my parents told to get me to go to sleep or eat my vegetables. I wondered then, and I wonder now, why children are told always to be truthful. Why are white lies and sugar coating acceptable in a society where “honesty is the best policy?”

As children, the value of honesty follows us in all facets of life. At school we have annual discussions and explanations of academic honesty, and the consequences for plagiarism or cheating are severe. We are instructed to be transparent in our relationships, and to maintain open lines of communication. But are we truly being honest with each other?

There is a reason that the colloquialism “brutally honest” exists. To quote pop icon Lizzo, truth hurts. Would I rather receive a nicer comment on a paper, regardless of the content and grade? Yes. Would the kindness of the comment change the ultimate grade? Definitely not. Sugarcoating is just as much a part of our day-to-day lives as the truth. As a society we have become accustomed to distilling the truth from sentences teeming with positive superlatives.

Children are notorious for telling the truth, hence another idiom, and one for which my parents have a particular fondness: “from the mouths of babes.” Kids tell it as it is; no dancing around the truth seems necessary. The honesty that we learn in childhood translates radically differently into our lives as adults. It is fascinating, and perhaps horrifying, that these two ideals can coexist. If a little girl told a stranger on the street she hated his shirt, he would laugh it off and marvel at how brave little kids are. If I, a 16-year-old girl, did the same, my comment would be perceived as offensive and rude.

Blunt honesty is valuable, though painful at times. It gets the point across with no room for misconceptions. That being said, those who prioritize straight honesty are often disliked for speaking the truth. Sugarcoating is superfluous, but it shapes the narratives of our lives to such an extent that we can no longer cope with the raw truth.

In the era of fake news, the truth is in the spotlight more than ever. For some, fact checking is a source of income. News agencies publish falsified stories every day. Again, we face a confounding paradox: we are expected to be honest, yet are faced with a constant barrage of dishonesty.

And dishonesty is not only coming from the media. People in power, too, have a bad habit of telling lies. The nature of politicians is to play to their audiences’ ears—within the boundaries of truth.

Irrespective of my personal political beliefs, I find it jarring to hear powerful people lie. To watch them struggle to disentangle themselves from their own complicated web of untruths and half-truths is another story. On October 14, Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo, and Meg Kelly of The Washington Post published the article “President Trump has made 13,435 false or misleading claims over 993 days.”

These claims vary on subject from trade to the economy to the whistleblower complaint (a claim which, according to the same article, Trump called inaccurate 29 times). His behavior is certainly concerning, but it is horrifying that numerous other politicians are willing to support his fallacies.

Trump has broken both of my father’s rules, and with disastrous consequences. He leaves us with no trust in our own president. His actions set an example for politicians to lie to their constituents. Honesty is not the be-all, end-all (we still are complex humans with our own motivations and goals), but a complete departure from the truth hints at a dark and unpredictable future.

This piece was previously published in The Zephyr, The Brearley School’s high school newspaper.
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