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Believing the lie

Believing the lie

One of my frustrations as a parent is when children convince themselves of an untruth so throughly that they act as though it’s true. Kids seem to have a capacity (or mine do at least) to begin believing their lies to the point where nothing can convince them it isn’t the truth. When you push them on the point, they seem sincerely offended that you would disbelieve them, even when the evidence is clear.

I had a perfect example of this situation as we were getting ready for school this morning. I asked my youngest specifically to put his plum pit in the compost pail (he has a habit of chucking them behind a radiator of a piece of furniture). A minute or two later when he hadn’t appeared in the kitchen, I went back to the dining room and repeated the request.

“I did,” he told me.

“No,” I said. “I’ve been in the kitchen the whole time, and you didn’t.”

“I did!” he said, righteous indignation all over. “I snuck in and did it!”

This was unlikely in the extreme, but not entirely outside the realm of possibility, so I suggested that we check the compost bin together, just be sure. Of course, there was no pit to be found, and the compost had been emptied the night before, so there was nothing it could be hiding under.

“Look,” I said. “It’s not here. So where do you think it ended up?”

“I put it in the compost!” he yelled. “I snuck in, like this…” – he mimed creeping on his tip-toes – “…and I put it in like this…” – he reached up and dropped an imaginary pit into the pail.

“So where did it go?” I asked, gently trying to help him reach the logical conclusion on his own.

“It must have just disappeared.” He gave a look that suggested we had stumbled on one of the world’s great mysteries.

“Things don’t just disappear, buddy,” I told him. “That pit is somewhere, and we need to find it.”

He’s now long gone to school. The pit remains unfound (though I’ll likely find it the next time I’m cleaning behind some bookshelf), and he remains irrationally convinced that he did put that pit in the compost, even after forfeiting his playdate tonight as a consequence.

I could be wrong. He could just be taking the politician’s approach – deny, deny, deny – but I really do think that at some point he started to believe his own falsehood. Somewhere between the flippant lie at the table – “I did.” – and the revelation that there was nothing in the bucket, he moved from telling a lie to believing it.

Adults do this too, of course. We often convince ourselves that things are different than they are, that we behaved better than we did, but we usually do so by creatively manipulating the facts rather than by directly contradicting them (though the recent American election might be an argument to the contrary).

Kids, on the other hand, sometimes seem capable of looking at the most obvious proof and still insisting on their lies. As a parent, I don’t know if there’s much I can do but gently and consistently insist on the truth, act on it, and hope they grow out of it sometime soon.