Published on September 5th, 2018 | by Rebecca Finkel0
Like Liar, Like Son
My son has started to talk about dinosaurs he saw at the zoo. And the big big giant big bee that stung his friend Sean at school. Sean, he’ll also tell you, regularly hits and bites him on the playground. None of these things are true, and I’ve stopped asking his teachers for verification, because I’m afraid of him being seen as a liar.
Of course, he’s not a liar. He’s only two. When a two-year-old lies, it’s make-believe. When a five-year-old lies, that’s when you start to worry. By ten, you wonder, what’s up with that kid?
I was a liar since before I can remember. I peaked the summer before middle school, just after my math teacher, Mrs. Leiboff, sent us off with the sex talk. “How many of you have begun to menstruate?” she asked, pacing the rows of desks. I had no business raising my hand, but I considered it, just to take the heat off.
That afternoon, on our way to buy a bathing suit, I told my mother that Jen M. had gotten her period in the school bathroom. There was no reason for this. It just came out of my mouth, as if by reflex. “And,” I added, “When it happened, she screamed.” Big big giant big.
My mom made me try on a frilly two-piece that I wasn’t ready for. We left the dressing room annoyed with each other, and there, beaming in the mirror, wearing the same two-piece, and clearly not menstruating, was Jen M. I said nothing and let my mother buy me the two-piece.
I wore the two-piece at my friend Cortney’s pool that summer. While we floated around, she told me about her difficult experiences with a neighborhood boy. I regaled her with stores about my easy romance with camp boyfriend, Bobby McHale, “Bobby” pulled from thin air and “McHale” pulled from a basketball in Cortney’s own driveway. She must have made the connection, because I didn’t see her much after the pool closed.
By the time I actually got my period, I was such an established liar that there was no one I could surprise with the news. I wasn’t even that surprised myself.
As a mom and a liar, I remember my son’s first not-truth with pride and apprehension. He was playing hide and seek under a piece of furniture, with his ear pressed to the floor. The sump pump in our basement suddenly activated, rattling the house. He ran from his hiding spot to tell me and his dad, “There’s a bear in the basement.”
No, we explained. It’s just a machine. We demonstrated other machines with motors: coffee grinder, vacuum, air conditioner. He seemed to understand, but over the next week, he told his teachers, his Nana, anyone who would listen: “There’s a bear in the basement.”
My son has a habit of turning fear into stories. Like most habits, it has a reward: a tiny bit of control over the fear. It’s a uniquely human defense mechanism, and watching it happen makes me reevaluate my own career in lying: Maybe I really have been a liar since before I could remember. Maybe my habit started when I was as young as my kid is now, trying to make sense of the unexplained and unexpected.
Just as the lies aren’t yet lies, my son’s habit isn’t yet a bad habit. But my job as a parent is to prevent bad habits from forming, and I can’t think of a more destructive habit than lying. It lets you build a trust-destroying bomb from a handful of words. That’s too much power for a kid. So I show him that he can create better things from bad feelings. When we watch Moana and the lava monster appears, I lean in and whisper, “Someone painted that.” When we read a scary story, I remind him, “Someone made up this story. You can make up stories, too.”
I think it’s working. The other day we were painting outside on the grass. It was one of those sparkling, magic-dusted moments with your kid that you know you’ll always remember. I asked what he was painting, and he told me, “boys fighting.” At first I was worried, but as the fighting boys sprawled across the paper in a giant blue splotch, I saw how calm my son looked, paintbrush in hand, taking control of an uncontrollable thing.