What is “Truth”?

I will be the first to admit that I am not a perfect father. I’m probably not even a particularly good dad. But sometimes even I am amazed at just how bad a dad I can be. For example:

One day #2 and I were out back working in the yard, I digging out rogue plants and a battalion of weeds that had taken over the garden during the fall and winter while she played happily in her sandbox. Occasionally she rushed over wielding her small plastic rake or shovel in an endearing and admirable effort to help. Her assistance ranged from helpful to hindrance, and often brought progress to a halt. But she basked in and boasted of her superior ability to climb under the big yew bush and pull weeds. Apparently not having to bend over is a sure sign of weed extraction skill. Then, after swooping in to make sure I was on the right track, off she ran back to her sandbox or further in the yard chasing bunnies or birds. The scene bordered on idyllic.

At one point she was playing with a garden decoration, a large bug-eyed bee to be exact that stood on the top of a retaining wall and next to the patio. She liked to take its wings off and put them on. She also liked to remove the bee from its stand so that it can “fly” around before landing again back on its stand. Suddenly the bee and its stand came tumbling down in a cacophony of metallic wings, body, and legs. Our own personal Humpty Dumpty. She stood at the top of the wall looking down with some concern on her face.

I turned and asked what happened. She looked contrite as she said “nothing.” I’m not attached to the bee, which hadn’t suffered any injuries in the fall, so I wasn’t upset. But I confess that I didn’t really accept “nothing” as a response. After all, there was bee carnage all over the lawn. So I asked again, prefacing my question by saying, “I’m not mad, and you’re not in trouble. I just want to know what happened.” Nothing was her story and she was sticking to it.

So I changed my approach. Let’s agree that something had happened and focus on how it happened. So I asked, “Did you accidentally knock the bee over?”

#2: “No.”
Me: “How did it fall over then?”
#2: “I don’t know”
Me: “What do you mean?”
#2: “It just fell over all by itself.”
Me: “All by itself? Bees don’t fall over all by themselves.”
#2: “One of my sand toys knocked it over.”
Me: “One of your sand toys? I don’t see any sand toys up there.”
#2: “That’s because it fell into the sandbox.”

At this point my interest had shifted from the bee to getting her to tell the truth about what happened. So I asked her a couple times if she was telling the truth or lying. She said she was telling the truth, that she wasn’t lying. We went around for a few minutes, me asking in various ways if she was telling the truth. Each time she assured me that she was telling the truth. We were at an impasse. In an effort to impress on her the importance of telling the truth, I scolded her. I tried to explain that she was in trouble for lying, not for knocking over the bee.

She cried. My heart ached. I made her sit on the steps while I worked. Every few minutes I would ask if she was ready to tell me the truth about what had happened. She repeated that she was telling the truth. She cried some more. My heart continued to ache.

Finally, I knelt down in front of her and asked her again: “Did you touch the bee? Are you telling me the truth?” Through tears she said that she had knocked the bee down. I asked, “Why didn’t you just tell me the truth? You would not have been in trouble for knocking the bee down. You were in trouble for not telling me the truth.”

Through more tears she said “I’m sorry.” And then, totally confused, she asked: “What is ‘truth’?”

Rarely have I felt worse than I did at that moment.

[The events in this post occurred a couple years back and are now one of the many artifacts in my personal museum of parenting failures. Wandering through its galleries I feel the pain of those failures as intensely as the day they happened.]

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8 thoughts on “What is “Truth”?

      • These concepts of truth and lying are so incredibly difficult and slippery, made all the more difficult when the very meaning of the words is lost on the child. As I realized looking into 3-year-old #2’s tear-filled eyes, she didn’t have a good understanding of either word.

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