My six year old daughter stepped off the bus with a very long face. “Daddy, you’re going to be so mad at me. I did something awful at school today.”
Embarrassed, upset and ashamed, it took twenty minutes for her to work through her tears and tell me that she got in trouble for talking in gym class. A crime that was punishable by sitting alone on the stage at the front of the gym. A second infraction would bring with it the much-feared trip to the principal’s office.
I first thanked her for telling me the truth. Then I told her I was not mad at her and there was no need to be afraid of further punishment.
When we talked about what she had learned from this, she said to “not talk after the whistle at gym class” and perhaps more importantly that she "should never be afraid to tell me the truth."
When we are young, telling the truth, if not alway easy, comes naturally. Lying is a learned behavior. Children begin to tell ridiculous fibs as early as 3 or 4 and graduate to more complicated and believable lies at 7 or 8.
Research shows that people lie for a number of reasons but most will fall into two buckets: to protect ourselves or to promote ourselves (see this fascinating chart breaking down our motivations for lying.)
The average person tells a few lies everyday. People who lie more often have shown to have a more active portion of the brain that is associated with reward processing (e.g. it makes lying worth it). Another study demonstrated that according to brain activity, the more we lie the less stress or emotional discomfort we feel about lying.
In other words, as we get older, telling the truth becomes harder and lying becomes easier.
Which brings us to the events of last week.
Our credibility is a window into our character. If we cannot be trusted to tell the truth about little things, like why we got in trouble in gym class or how much we drank in high school, it will call into question our ability to tell the truth on more substantial issues.
I trust my six year old to tell me the truth, a belief that was reinforced this week shortly after she stepped of the bus. I wish I could say the same for anyone who might someday ascend to the highest bench.