Thursday, January 3, 2013

Adults Lie

Some time between my fourth and fifth birthdays I came to the conclusion that as people get older, they become badder. Not badder as in "That's right, we're bad", but badder as in more evil. In my four-year-old mind it went something like this. Everyone is born good, but over time they all grow up to be bad.

For example, I noticed that in order to be really mean and scary, one had to be an adult. Other kids my age could be mean sometimes, but they weren't mean for long and they were never scary (even when pretending to be monsters). However, adults could be mean over extended periods and they definitely could be scary (even when pretending to be friendly), specially when their faces turned red as they yelled at you.

For many of my peers, this would no doubt have been sufficient evidence to prove my point. However, there was something that adults did that to me really brought home the insidious nature of their badness.

They lied.

I could probably have figured out a way to deal with the mean and scary stuff, but the lying part was almost too much to bear.

I started to notice them lying at parties my parents had from time to time. Two ladies would be having a conversation as a third would enter the room. They'd both smile and wave at the third lady who'd walk over to greet them. They'd warmly greet one-another telling the third lady how nice it was to see her and how they looked forward to being together. Then after the third lady moved on to greet others, one of the first two would say, "Don't you just despise her. She's so fake."

At first I thought that the two ladies were just insane or something, but over time I noticed others doing the same kinds of things. It had never occurred to me that, outside of the bad guys on TV shows, people would lie like that.

I started to pay attention to adults who talked to me to see if I could tell when they were lying. I noticed that when they repeatedly use phrases like "Uh, huh" and "That's nice", that they weren't really listening to me. I noticed that when they continued to look at the TV while talking with me, they weren't really paying attention. I concluded that no matter what they say to the contrary, if their faces are red and they're trembling, they're mad.

Not only did adults lie, but sometimes they seemed proud of it. I'd overhear my dad and his friends talking about something that happened at the office. Describing a situation where he'd been asked in a meeting about work he'd not gotten to, one would say , "So I just told him that we'd already completed the job."

The others would laugh supportively.

Perhaps the hardest thing to accept was that my mom lied, even to me. It started one night at one of my parents parties. After I was supposed to have been asleep in bed, I got up and wondered down the hall to see what was going on. I peeked around the corner into the living room where I saw my mom at the center of a circle of friends who were talking and laughing. I smiled, seeing what fun they were having.

Then I noticed something between two of my mom's extended fingers; it was a lit cigarette. I slipped back down the hallway, crawled into my bed and cried myself to sleep. As long as I could remember, my mom had made it clear to me how bad cigarettes were. She talked about how people who smoke can't control themselves. They lose themselves to cigarettes.

The next morning at breakfast, my mom could see that something was bothering me. She asked me about it. I told her what I'd seen. I was hopeful that she'd have a good reason for having the cigarette.

She hesitated, looked off to her left, looked at me and said, "Oh honey, that wasn't my cigarette. I was holding it for someone else."

"Who were you holding it for?"

Another hesitation and, "I was holding it for Mrs. Buck."

"Mrs. Buck smokes cigarettes?"

"Um... no not usually, just sometimes at parties."

It seems comical to me now, but seeing that my mom not only smoked, but that she also lied about smoking was pretty hard to take at four.

Prior to that moment, I'd tell my mom anything. Afterward, I started keeping things inside. In fact, I stopped trusting adults altogether. Stopped sharing what was happening for me. Stopped sharing my worries and fears.

Fifty-odd years later, I realize I've never shared the above with anyone. My reasons have changed, mainly to the fact that I haven't really thought about the experience since I was a kid.

Then why think of it now?

Lately, I've watched Iris as she works with kids with autism. She's remarkably effective and people are always asking how she's able to do what she does so well. This morning in the shower it occurred to me that, to the kids with whom Iris works, she's 100% trustworthy. They believe in her. They trust her. As a result, they'll do things with her that they would never do with others.

As a four-year-old I may have been exceptionally perceptive; my perception may have been below average.  Nonetheless, I can't help but think that kids take in and process much more than we give them credit for and that for them, the decisions are black and white. There are adults who lie and adults who don't. Depending the category into which a child places you, you may be wonderfully effective or wonderfully ineffective.

Happy Thursday,
Teflon

4 comments:

  1. Thank you, Tef. Yup, we make some pretty heavy decisions as kids - in black & white, as you say - and most of those are carried to our graves (or pyres) unless examined and re-evaluated. And personal authenticity is up there among the top behaviors that make an impact - on kids, others, ourselves.

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  2. Sree, isn't it funny how strongly we influence people with the most casual inconsistencies and how, now matter how strong the influence at the time, it can fade to nothing.

    I see authenticity as a kind of meta-behavior. It's one that supports all others and when absent, undermines them. I think kids feel the impact more strongly than others; they're also more resilient than others. So the impact needn't have any long term effect.

    Nonetheless, in the moment, I believe that one's perceived level of authenticity significantly influence how effective one can be. So perhaps there's a cumulative effect of authenticity or inauthenticity in our interactions with kids?

    I'm thinking aloud here, but perhaps we sometimes spend too much time on method and not enough time on being real.

    What do you think?

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  3. Tef, I find it difficult to make strong correlations between level of inauthenticity and magnitude/duration of impact on others. In general, I could probably agree that kids are influenced more strongly, but I'm not sure I'd say all (or even most) kids are resilient. I would certainly say that authenticity enhances our personal effectiveness. In fact, with my kids, I have realized that I can't teach something I am not. It has really clarified and focused the methods by which I influence them.

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