Liar, Liar Pants on Fire
By Sheila Wray Gregoire
My daughter Katie was a child prodigy. Most would be proud. I was not. You see, Katie’s specialty was not that she mastered trigonometry at 3, or that she could pick out Bach symphonies at 5. Instead, my Katie was a gifted liar.
She figured out how to lie about a year before children are supposed to realize there is any advantage to it. When they’re two, they don’t understand that if they lie, they may avoid punishment. By age three, though, most have figured out that lying may be a way to escape the time out chair. My child, when she was barely two, would brazenly claim that she had not eaten that last cookie, despite the crumbs all over her face.
Unfortunately, recent studies predict that Katie will continue such behaviour. The Josephson Institute of Ethics found that the vast majority of teenagers think lying is no big deal. Ninety-three percent of teens admit to lying to their parents, eighty-three percent to their teachers, and seventy-four percent have even cheated on a test. Perhaps even worse, thirty-eight percent have shoplifted. And all of these figures have increased substantially over similar studies ten years ago.
It’s distressing enough to realize that these people accustomed to lying and cheating will one day be our airline pilots, mayors and doctors. It’s worse when one reads the rest of the study and learns that religious attendance, religious schools and even religious beliefs hardly budged the numbers. Indeed, those attending religious schools are actually more likely to lie to their parents (95%), though they’re less likely to steal.
Honesty was once a highly prized virtue. George Washington is famous for quipping “I can’t tell a lie, Pa, I can’t tell a lie.” More recently, though, we’ve been greeted with Presidents and Prime Ministers and United Nations executives lying about just about everything. Expedience has become the virtue of the day. We have lost our view of absolute good and evil.
Yet this can’t explain why kids with religious backgrounds are more inclined to lie to their parents. Some teenagers may cynically claim that religious parents are more strict, and thus lying is more necessary if you want to “have a life”, but when 95% lie, there has to be more to the story.
I wonder if part of the problem is that the church, for far too long, has emphasized outward signs of godliness rather than process. We shout “Praise the Lord!” when someone comes to Christ, but look suspiciously at those who are wrestling with doubts. We want people to be holy, but the idea of true Christian community, with accountability, is often lacking because we don’t want to deal with other people’s problems.
We may pay lip service to honesty, but our kids see what is really important to us. Too often it’s keeping up appearances. We want to appear like we have all the “big” sins—usually sexual ones—under control. And when we start a hierarchy of sins, it’s easy for honesty, one of the “little” virtues, to fall by the wayside.
John Townsend and Henry Cloud, authors of Boundaries, have said that the ideal church would resemble an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. At AA, the first thing you have to do is admit that you’re a failure and you need help. You say, “I’m Sheila and I’m an alcoholic”. At church, should be inclined to say, with Paul, “I am the chief of sinners”. Too often, though, we smile and try to look perfect.
A wise woman once told me that the price of lying is that you become a liar. The sin affects who you are. I refuse to believe Katie is destined to be a liar, and I will work hard at steering her on the right path. But it will mean paying more attention to my own integrity, especially with other Christians. It means being more transparent. It means calling us both to account when we fall. But the effort is worth it. Let’s encourage our kids not just to love God, but to act virtuously, even in the little things. It won’t just transform their lives; it could transform our whole church culture as well.