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Fibbing Isn't a Black and White Lie Affair

December 19, 1987|JAN HOFMANN | For The Times

Are there times when honesty is the second-best policy?

What about when Aunt Martha asks how you like those curried beets she heaped onto your plate? Or when your little sister asks you which is prettier, the house she drew or the picture in the book?

Just what should you say when the affair has been over for years and now your wife wants to know if there was ever anything going on between you and Sue?

Or what if your parents' anniversary is coming up and you're planning a big surprise party?

Family Life readers are divided on the issue of little white lies and whether they are acceptable, necessary or simply a myth.

John, an Anaheim father of four, prefers to use another term. "To Socrates, it was 'the noble lie,' " he says, remembering his college philosophy classes. "And as much as I believe in honesty, I can see that there are situations that call for not necessarily factual information."

But he concedes that Socrates and Plato are a little beyond the grasp of his children, ages 7, 5, 4 and 1.

"We try and instill in our children a deep respect for truth," he says. "But as you grow up, it's not all black and white. If there's a situation where the truth serves no purpose and will only hurt someone, then there's no reason for someone to unburden himself.

"A lot of people find it easy to dump their problems on somebody else. If someone was to come out and ask directly, 'Did you do this?' you may choose to say 'no' if all it's going to do is cause pain."

John remembers a friend who learned that lesson the hard way. "He had been involved in a marital indiscretion, and when his wife asked him about it, he confessed, and he lost his marriage."

But John wants to make it clear that he believes those occasions are "really exceptional situations," especially between spouses. "If you can't be honest with your partner, you don't have much of a relationship," he says.

His 4-year-old is now at the stage where "he's trying out lies," John says. "When he comes up to me and says, 'I love you too, Daddy,' out of the clear blue sky, I can tell something's wrong. We have to watch him.

"I will punish my children more for not telling me the truth than for breaking something. Material things can be replaced," he says.

"We also have to be very careful about the example we set. We don't ask them to lie on the phone when someone calls for us. And we try to teach them that there are such things as factual lies. The advertising they see on TV teaches them how to rationalize and misuse facts. That's not a good moral example for young people."

Colleen, a mother of two who also lives in Anaheim, strongly disagrees with John's philosophy. To her, there's no such thing as a white lie or a noble lie. "I think all lies are lies," she says. But she admits that she has told some.

"When I was very young, I got caught in a lie," she says. "It started out as the kind of lie you tell to impress somebody, and it escalated and escalated. By the time I finally 'fessed up to it, it was very painful to do so. So I decided--I was a sophomore in high school--that I was going to make myself a promise. I wasn't ever going to tell another lie as long as I lived. And I've been good about it.

"I have said, 'I don't want to discuss it'; I've changed the subject; I've told people, 'You wanted my honest opinion, so here it is.' But I haven't lied," she says.

"I can understand why people say it's hard to get through a day without a lie," Colleen says. "It's not impossible, but it's hard. A lot of times lying is quicker and easier. But it is possible not to do it. If Aunt Helen asks how you like that afghan she made for you, you can say, 'You must have spent hours working on this and that means so much to me.' You don't actually have to say whether you like it or not.

"My parents always told me the truth, even when it wasn't pleasant." Colleen says she has tried to do the same with her sons, Gino, 13, and Tony, 11.

"When someone calls and we're not home, the boys can say, 'Mom can't come to the phone right now.' That's true; I can't. They don't need to say, 'Mom and Dad aren't home.' I never ask them to lie for me. That would just wash out the ground under what we've built."

Gino says he learned the same way his mother did that "when you're in trouble, you can't lie your way out of it. It just gets worse. If I'm trying to weasel my way out, I always get caught.

"But it all depends. Around Christmas, it's OK to tell them you don't know anything about their gift. Or when you're playing a joke, that's OK.

"If people ask me what I think about something, I usually tell them what I really feel, even if it's not what they want to hear. They asked me, so I tell them."

Gino says his brother is "the only person I've never lied to."

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