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When Not to Tell the Truth

by Eli H. Newberger, M.D. (6 December 2003)

(This lesson is based on an excerpt of the book "The Men They Will Become: The Nature and Nurture of the Male Character" by Dr. Newberger.)

Chapter 11 in my book "The Men They Will Become" addresses the subject of honesty in boys. This section discusses when not to tell the truth. It follows the section on Honesty and Entrapment.

Preschoolers and schoolboys

Preschoolers, with their somewhat inflexible sense of rules and their developmental inability to see things from the perspectives of others, are apt to say truthful but embarrassing things in public. You may recall the preschooler I mentioned earlier who informed the police officer, over his father's protestations, that the father had been trying to steal a car.

Schoolboys, however, have begun to appreciate that the advantages of telling the truth vary from one person's perspective to another's. Parents can begin to discuss with schoolboys the kinds of situations when dishonesty in the form of what we call "white lies" is appropriate. A schoolboy asks a friend whether the schoolboy played soccer well that afternoon. The friend doesn't really think the boy did play well, but doesn't see any way to evade the question. If he tells the truth, he's going to hurt his teammate's self-confidence. Is it better to be truthful or to be reassuring? While an exaggerated compliment may backfire, no harm is done by being reassuring. The boy who reassures his pal with a white lie doesn't gain anything except the satisfaction of making his teammate feel better.

When white lie is appropriate

Only detailed discussion of possible situations can enable a parent and a son to refine an understanding of when and why a white lie is appropriate and when it is inappropriate or can be avoided by an effective and yet truthful strategy. These discussions will be all the more compelling to a boy if they are reciprocal—parents relating some of the situations they have confronted when white lies seemed to them the responsible thing to say.

From such discussions a boy might learn to say, "I think you're a good soccer player;' which might be true but not as true of today's game; or he might say, "I think you're a good player. You didn't have your best game today, but I'm sure you will next time," which could be both truthful and reassuring.

I had an early experience of a protective lie. Shortly after my sister was born, my mother's mother died. As if traumatized by this gain of a third child and loss of a parent, my mother fell into the first of several episodes of mental illness. Mental illness was more stigmatized then than now, and I never confided my mother's illness even to my closest friends. It's possible that some of them knew of it from other sources, but they didn't embarrass me by mentioning it. Until my junior year in high school, my mother suffered through, and recovered from, recurrent stretches of depression and other symptoms at home. Then she was hospitalized for the first time. My father instructed us children to say, if asked, that she was spending time at a dairy farm. Since mental illness was seen as shameful, a case could be made for protecting my mother—and us—from public gossip.

While my siblings were perhaps not old enough to understand, my father could have explained to me why it made sense to protect my mother's situation. Instead, his way of handling the situation within the family implied that he was ashamed of my mother's condition, and, by implication, we children should be ashamed of her, too. The lies we were instructed to tell might be regarded by some people as inconsequential white lies, but their effect on our family was significant: We lived as though we had something major to hide; we lived without the solace and perhaps the help that others might have offered us. When I think back to the nature of the community we lived in, I think that our situation would, if widely known, have generated sympathy and comfort.


Alcohol or drug abuse within a family often generates a household conspiracy to lie to cover up the situation. Sometimes the conspiracy doesn't even have to be articulated. Everyone besides the addict notices that everyone else is ashamed; tacitly, everyone agrees to be silent, or untruthful. Children of separated or divorced parents frequently get drawn into the conspiracies of one parent to hide facts known to the children from the other parent—"I'm dating Linda now, but I don't want you to tell Mommy."

Honesty and discretion get confusingly intertwined in family life at times. Parents obscure or deny certain facts about themselves or others in the family to their children; sometimes these are facts that, if known, would damage their children's idealized images of family members. At other times, information is withheld because parents don't trust the children to handle it discreetly outside the home. Their concern isn't unrealistic. Boys may be moved to brag or confess to their peers family information that their parents have very good reason to want to keep private.

Rights of privacy

The adults of each household have certain rights of privacy. One of their responsibilities is to determine what to divulge within the family about topics such as mental and physical health, family finances, marital conflict, job security or loss. In my clinical practice I have encountered situations in which parents shared more discretionary information with their children than the children could bear, creating levels of anxiety—because there was nothing the children could do to alter the situation—that impeded the children's development for years, even into adulthood. But many boys are capable, even in their school years, of handling some sensitive information if it is explained to them why it would be important not to broadcast the information outside the family.

Children also have significant rights of privacy, I believe, that bear on issues of honesty. When the appropriate privacy rights of everyone in the family are outlined and protected, incentives to dishonesty within the family cannot but decline. I still wince when I think of the story of a mother who came upon her adolescent daughter's private journal. Indefensibly heedless of her daughter's privacy, she read through the journal, finding there expressions of the sexual feelings and fantasies the daughter had experienced for her boyfriend. The mother confronted her daughter with the journal and forbade her ever to date the boy again; and I daresay the daughter learned never to trust her mother again.


"Abuse of truth ought to be as much punishment as the introduction of falsehood," said Pascal. The moral issue isn't, as one might suppose, between the always honorable truth and the always dishonorable falsehood. Truth can be used in a way that is profoundly inhumane. Falsehoods can be gently and lovingly protective without any adverse side effects.

When boys reach school age, they begin to have more complex peer relations in which many of the incentives to dishonesty already experienced at home are confronted but without as much adult guidance. Then, as we see, boys and girls begin constructing separate and intertwined social structures that by the adolescent years will be hiding as much from their parents as their parents ever hid from them.

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