Humans have a tendency to categorize. When we confront a new person, we promptly (and often unconsciously) start a process of sorting that person into categories. Educated or not? Religious or not? Nice or not? Attractive or not? Decent or not? Articulate or not? Your filtering criteria may be different from mine, but it seems that we all sort people into categories based on whether they meet the qualifications that we judge to be important.
Jesus was often criticized for His failure to use appropriate filters. “Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners” (Matthew 11:19). Had He no standards? Simon the Pharisee was quite certain that Jesus’ inability to discern the tainted nature of His admirers undermined His credibility as a prophet (Luke 7:39). Jesus was gracious and supportive of adulterers, tax collectors, the blind, and lepers. We might wonder why the holiest among us was so undiscerning.
Some time ago a mother asked my counsel about her 2nd-grade daughter who was constantly in trouble at school for lying and for not cooperating well with classmates. In the oft-repeated scenario, the daughter breaks a rule and, when confronted, lies and gets in trouble with her teacher, then her counselor, her vice principal, and finally her principal. Then she comes home to be in trouble with Mom. After two years of this, Mom was fed up. She told me that she has met repeatedly with school professionals and they have not been able to find anything that works to curb the girl’s lying.
There is hardly anything that undermines trust as quickly and thoroughly as lying. It is both insulting and condescending.
The sensitive connections within a family are especially devastated by dishonesty.
When the mother told me that two years of seeking answers had yielded no benefits, I should have panicked. But the Spirit of the Lord whispered to me that the answer was so obvious that we all had missed it. Humans often stumble in darkness at noon day. I suggested to the mom that this little girl wanted more than anything else to be loved, to be safe, to be cherished. She isn’t very skillful at winning good will. She gets crosswise of the system and, in a panic, she tells a story to try to avoid trouble. Then all the adults get indignant : “How could you lie? Do you think we’re stupid enough to believe you?” And the little girl feels hopeless and desolate. She tells another tall tale in order to win the good will she desperately craves. All the adults get madder still.
One of the great surprises in our experience as foster parents was that many of our foster children defined truth as that set of statements that was most likely to keep them out of trouble. At first we were indignant. With time we learned to appreciate the life experiences that had led them to that point.
What kind of person was the 2nd-grader who was chronically in trouble for lying? When we visited her home, she excitedly showed us her brother’s gerbils. She wanted to be helpful. She spoke excitedly of books she was reading. She wanted friendship and good will. The good news was that she was still trying very hard to win the good will of the people around her. That takes a lot of courage for a child who is in so much trouble so much of the time.
As we talked about the problem, the mother asked, “Am I supposed to ignore her lying? I have tried everything. I even promise her that she will not be in trouble any time she tells us the truth. What can I do?” She wept.
We could have talked about the developmental reality that clarity on “objective reality” is a developing aptitude for children. We could have talked about the fact that people create realities that shield them from the unbearable. But those ideas do not provide immediate guidance on how to respond helpfully to a girl who lies.
I suggested that, when the daughter tells a story, we don’t need to get stuck in lectures on lying. Neither should the adults accept the story as truth; we can recognize it as a story. “Wow. That is a great story. I’m sure you wish it happened that way so that people would not be mad at you.” “You and I both wish that were true. It would make life so much more pleasant.” There must be no trace of irony or accusation, certainly no sarcasm. While there is no mistake in anyone’s mind that the story is an invention, it is not necessarily a sign of a permanently sick and warped child. The first job is to do no harm.
Our second (and perhaps most challenging) job is to understand what the story-telling means to the child. We cannot help a child whom we have tidily categorized as bad. For the child, story telling can actually be an attempt to create a harmony with fantasy that she does not know how to create with her behavior.
Story telling can be a useful skill. She can be invited to tell the story that the principal experienced, the teacher experienced, that the wronged classmate experienced. Creativity should be cherished and nurtured—at the same time that truth-telling is cultivated.
But we cannot help anyone we do not love. We have no right to correct anyone we do not presently cherish. Are we willing, as adults, to recall the stories we told as children? Have we kept enough of our humanity alive that we can see why a child might resort to distortion of truth? Do we have enough Christianity alive in us to look on a child with compassion? Just as we will ultimately be judged by a high priest who is touched by the feeling of our infirmities (Hebrews 4:16), so our children should be guided by adults who have compassion about the challenges in their lives.
We can better understand the child’s behavior when we capture the issue behind her actions. Normally we act as if the child’s issue were, “I wonder if I can act with disregard for everyone’s rights and needs and still manage to avoid responsibility.” I don’t think that is the question that 2nd-grader was asking. I think she was crying out in desperation, “Will someone please love me and understand me? I want to be a good kid but I keep doing dumb things and I keep getting in trouble. I am all mixed up. Can anyone see beyond my mistakes to a frightened child who wants to be loved and taught?”
The psychologist Roy Baumeister has studied the human tendency to cultivate what he calls “the myth of pure evil.” We imagine that people who do bad things do them with relish, without regret, and without regard for others. Of course since the beginning of time, people on the other side of that judgment are looking back through that same dirty lens and seeing us as the first offenders. The cycle of recrimination never ends. There is no hope for human understanding. There is no hope for peace.
No hope except One. “For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit” (Mosiah 3:19, emphasis added). The only hope for ending millennia of misunderstanding is to allow the Divine to remove the judging and categorizing that divide us.
I suggested to the mother that she could make sure that the problems at school did not cause a total eclipse of the child. Mom could fill her mind with the child’s finest moments so that she is prepared to hug, cherish, and play with this struggling child. That little girl is begging for love but doing all the things that guarantee that she will get judgment, accusation, and punishment. As adults we need to break the cycle. We need to get out of our automatic reactions and answer that little girl’s plea with heavenly balm. Along the way we teach her skills for dealing with situations that are currently overwhelming her.
Humans do not learn well until they are loved well. That is true for 2nd-graders and for octogenarians. Before we left the home, we witnessed that little girl reading a story to her mom that she had written and illustrated. It was amazing. This little girl wrote intelligently, read beautifully, and illustrated wonderfully. She was happy in this one little area where she is still able to succeed. That little island of competence should be cherished and enlarged through adult help.
Incidentally, it is worth noting that every story contains multiple perspectives. There is more than lying that might help us “classify” that little girl. When she was two years old, she was at home with her mother who had come home from a dental appointment with a headache. While that little girl played, her mother, who had a chronic disease, died of an unusual reaction to the dental anesthetic. When Dad called home, it was that little girl who had to say, “Daddy, I can’t wake Mommy up.”
After her mother died, the little girl was raised primarily by her grandmother since her Dad worked long hours and traveled. Then Grandma died. Then Dad remarried. In addition to an older sister, that girl now had two older step siblings who generally found her to be a nuisance. That is a lot of history for a 6-year-old to sort out. That is a lot of life to shoulder with her small frame.
I don’t know how her life history made her both desperate for love and willing to tell stories to keep from disappointing people, but we hardly need to be surprised. What that little girl needs is not careful analysis as much as patient compassion. There is no great lecture or any system of consequences that would help that little girl stop lying. But there is love. Love is the great curative. Love sets us free to grow. That is why the Great Physician gave a new prescription for healing the universal maladies of mortality:
A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.
By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another (John 13:34-5).
The natural man will respond (and I fully expect several corrective e-mails), “So we just ignore right and wrong? We just have a big love-fest and fail to teach rightness?”
Nope. I’m saying that rightness starts with my attitude. I must not launch into correction until I have my guidance system in order. When I have filled my soul with love and compassion, then I can say some inspired combination of hopeful truths: “O sweetheart! It must be so painful to be in so much trouble. I know how much you want to have friends and be good.”
Some part of my message will probably be expressed in tears of compassion. We can only heal when we love rather than lacerate. When we are filled with love for the child, we can invite responsibility. “What did you learn from today’s painful experiences? How can I help you do better?”
There is a human tendency to react to people with correction and follow remediation with appreciation. The only problem with this sensible approach is that it doesn’t work. Father has asked that we invert that common regimen. We can never properly correct unless we, filled with the Holy Spirit, feel love and respect for those we hope to help. When the Holy Spirit fills us, we discover that that little girl is in the same big category that all of us are in: the category of struggling and imperfect human beings. She, like the rest of us, needs people who find a way to bless her rather than a reason to judge her. We can all be grateful that Heavenly Father has done just that for us. In fact, we love Him because He first loved us (1 John 4:19).
In a recent General Conference, Elder Holland invited just such an approach: “. . . we can help others, calling down blessings on them even as they make supplication for us. We can cheer every talent and ability, wherever it is bestowed, thus making life here more nearly what it will be like in heaven.”
Baumeister, R. F. (1997). Evil: Inside human violence and cruelty. New York: W. H. Freeman.
Holland, J. R. (April 2002). The other prodigal. Ensign.