Alex was still a toddler when it dawned on me that her version of honesty and mine might be divergent concepts. At first I deemed it storytelling. But it soon became clear that I was being too euphemistic.
She was lying.
Sometime at the start of her childhood I had informed my daughter I could always tell if she was lying by looking into her eyes. A claim, by the way, I would not recommend making. It may have given the tiny toddler pause, but it also set her on a path to perfect the art. And lying is an art.
But in the early days, she was not its artist.
We were on our way to a daytime adventure when I asked her if she’d brushed her teeth; she said yes.
But her toothbrush, set on my vanity, was still dry, the toothpaste unmoved.
I asked again. Yes, she said.
You’d lie about brushing your teeth? I just don’t get it.
Patience, I told myself.
So I bent to her three-year-old stature, gazed into earnest brown eyes and asked her one more time:
“Did you brush your teeth?”
She insisted she had. But this time with eyelids tightly shut.
Mommy clearly couldn’t tell if Alexandra was lying if she couldn’t see into her eyes.
Stifling a chuckle I put my hands on her tiny shoulders, turned her about face and marched her into the bathroom to brush.
In first grade, it was the parent’s conference at which I was surprised to see her teacher’s cuts had healed so well. Toward the end of the meeting when I inquired about Ms. Holbrook’s injury, the perplexed expression spoke volumes. What exactly had Alexandra told me? With dawning comprehension she asked, “then you probably don’t really own a pet monkey, do you?”
Of all the character flaws, how was it that my daughter settled upon the one for which mom was least tolerant? If the foundation of our very relationship couldn’t be built upon trust, then where exactly were we headed?
In sync with my contemporaries, when faced with such a parenting road block, I turned to the experts. The pediatrician, the self-help books, the online networking. This was a dilemma for which some shrewd sage could offer a simple solution.
Or so I told myself.
Instead, the conflicting remedies left me with more puzzle than solution. The notion that the tendency in children to lie wasn’t a big deal, was in fact pretty typical, was ludicrous to me. If I couldn’t get beyond this general consensus of the experts, how was I to take their counsel? They wanted me to accept, ignore and reward; I wanted to admonish, scream and punish.
Neither of our techniques worked.
She wasn’t merely told that accepting rides from middle school wasn’t allowed, she was told specifically from whom she could not take a ride. When the bus came home one day and she didn’t, I got into the car. I had driven as far as the next street when I saw her rounding the corner, on foot.
Why had she been so late?
Without missing a beat, she asked, “do you want me to tell you the truth?”
Against the rules, she had taken the ride and gotten dropped off at the top of the street. It was a truth of sorts, but only forthcoming because she had been caught practically red-handed.
On the flip side of all her deceptions, however, was an inclination to include me where her peers put up parent barriers. At times there seemed to be no dam between her brain and her mouth. Filterless comments flung freely. I knew secrets, antics and anecdotes that silently I wondered why she shared. I knew when she did something funny, something stupid, something wrong. I was privy to girlhood dramas and school yard gossip. I knew which kids were doing what and at what ages.
As I became repository to countless confessions, I was also allowed access to the no holds barred persona that was reemerging on the other side of adolescence. In acquiescence to her Mean Girl encounters, Alex had tempered her exuberant personality to better fit her classroom community. The physical, boisterous and bold tomboy had retreated to a quiet and intimidated little girl.
So it was with mixed emotion that I received her assertions in high school that she “didn’t care what people thought of her.” I was delighted in the returned confidence and independence; I cringed at the indifference and defiance. For her missteps she offered tepid apologies. On one occasion, when I dissected her betrayal of a friend’s confidence, she concluded that maybe she had been wrong but quickly appended the admission with the statement that her friends should know better: she simply could not keep a secret.
After each incident, I found my self marveling at my daughter’s forthrightness. What spilled out of her mouth wasn’t just a snapshot of teenage life; it was a feature length full screen with a borderline R rating. And I understood that what she shared with me she was sharing with abandon. What she was telling me, she was telling to almost anyone who would listen.
In contrast, what I reveal isn’t deceptive so much as it is incomplete. Set in a self-edit mode, it isn’t merely the written word I choose carefully; I often consider consequence even in everyday conversation. What spins in my head rarely makes it out beyond my own imagined play of it.
And it is from this tainted lens that I have warned Alex of the perils of her honest outlook. It’s one thing to derisively ask mom if I really plan on wearing that outfit; it’s another to offer her friends the same unfiltered criticism. However, all my attempts over the years to instill in her even a bit of wariness have been futile. I’ve watched with apprehension and incredulity as she has faced life’s challenges with porous armor. To the people in her path, she reveals full self, warts and all, every time. Even when her honesty gets her in trouble, she quickly utters an unconvincing “oh well, I’m over it” long before she really is and moves on. She jumps head long and full throttle into every relationship and retreats not battle scarred and skeptical at its conclusion but open and unguarded, ready for the next.
It is at these times that I wonder just who is teaching whom. And exactly what being honest truly means.