Dad? How do you tell the good guys from the bad guys?”
Adam, my five year old, walked into my office wearing a coonskin hat. I was seated behind my desk, working on a publisher’s deadline, while he had been upstairs watching an old Davy Crockett movie with his brother. My boy had seen Davy betrayed by two men travelling with him. The famous American pioneer was surprised and unprepared because he’d figured, as had my son, that the men were his friends.
“So how, Dad?” Adam pressed. “How can I tell a good guy from a bad guy?”
As I looked into my son’s innocent blue eyes, I knew I couldn’t ignore this opportunity, deadline or not. Trouble was—I wasn’t sure myself! “Adam,” I said, lifting him onto my lap, “telling the good guys from the bad guys is something adults struggle with every day. Sometimes it can take a while to know for sure.”
I had an idea. “Buddy?” I said, “did you know that Mum didn’t marry me right away?”
Adam frowned. This was new information.
“In fact,” I forged ahead, “Mum made me wait a lot longer than I wanted. I took her out to lunch and dinner 50 or 60 times. We went to various events together. And sometimes, Mum just wanted me to drive her around or take her walking downtown or in a park.”
“So we could talk. So she could ask me questions. She wanted to see if I would ask her any questions and to know whether I would listen to her answers.”
Adam shook his head and said, “I mean, why did she not marry you at first?”
This, of course was the question I had been waiting for. “Because, Adam, Mum wanted to make sure I was not a bad guy. She wanted to marry a good guy.”
Brightening immediately, he said “And you’re a good guy, right?”
“Right,” I responded. “So, do you know a little more now about telling the good guys from the bad ones?”
“Yes sir!” he said, rolling out of my lap, “you just take ’em to lunch!” And with that conclusion, my blond five year old in the coonskin hat left my office.
Now I was the one frowning. Somehow, I thought, that didn’t go quite right.
Then, as I was about to return—a bit unsettled—to my work, Adam popped his head back into the room. Grinning, he said, “And when I take ’em to lunch, I see if they tell the truth. Cause if they don’t tell the truth, like the guys with Davy Crockett, then they’re not very good, are they?”
I sat still for a moment after Adam left. Surely, it wasn’t that uncomplicated, was it? I shook my head to clear it. Could simply “telling the truth” be such an obvious designator between good people and bad people? Can a lie make that much difference in a relationship or a business? And how truthful must one be? Would I want someone who leads me, personally or professionally, to allow me to believe something that is not true?
I scribbled down these questions and a few more like them at my desk after Adam had gone. Why did I care? For a time, I wasn’t sure. But I’ve boiled my lingering unease down to this: Can my family and I be hurt by someone else’s lies, even if I don’t know the person?
The answer, I’m convinced, is an unqualified “yes.”
A week later, I was driving the boys home from school. I listened carefully as they discussed something they’d heard that day about one of our local politicians.
“I think he’s dead,” Adam said.
“He didn’t die,” his eight-year-old brother responded. “He’s in jail. Right, Dad?”
“That’s right,” I answered, keeping an eye on them in the rear-view mirror.
“Why is he in jail?” Adam asked.
“Well ...” I took a deep breath, suddenly overwhelmed by the thought of explaining state and federal regulations regarding fraud, electorial funding laws and misappropriation of public funds to a five year old. Then it hit me. “Guys,”
I said, “He’s in jail because he lied.”
“Really?” they exclaimed in unison.
“Really,” I said.
Before they could ask any more questions, I pulled off the road and put the vehicle in park. The Davy Crockett conversation was whistling through my head, along with an article I’d read that morning about a mother who had helped her six year old win concert tickets in an essay contest by declaring in the first sentence “My father died in Iraq last year.” It was a lie, and I wondered what kind of adult the mother expected her child to become.
As I turned around in the front seat and faced my boys, I knew what kind of adult life I wanted for them. And I was becoming increasingly aware that the window was closing on my opportunity to say anything like I was about to say and have them listen.
“Guys,” I began, “what do Mum and Dad do if you tell a lie?”
“You punish us,” Austin answered.
“Badly,” Adam felt he needed to add.
“That’s true,” I intoned seriously.
“You know, we’ve told you that if you tell the truth, the punishment won’t be nearly as tough. But if you lie, it’ll be a big, big deal.”
“Big trouble,” Adam said.
“Right,” I continued. “Do you know why Mum and Dad are so concerned about this? It’s because when you’re a kid and you tell a lie, you only get punished by us. But if mums and dads can’t teach their children to tell the truth and the children grow up and they still lie, really bad things can happen.”
I paused. “Did you know,” I asked, narrowing my eyes, “that some people have lost their homes because they lied?
There are parents who’ve had their children taken away from them because they lied. People can lose their jobs when they lie and, yes, sometimes people even get sent to jail for lying.
“Always remember this: cheating is lying. Exaggeration—telling your class you caught six fish, when you only caught four—is a lie. Allowing someone to believe something you know is not true is a lie.
“I love you boys. I want you to grow up to be great men. That’s why you must learn to tell the truth. Even if it’s hard to do. Even if it makes you look bad at the moment. Even if it makes you feel alone. I will always be proud of you when you tell the truth.”
As I pulled back onto the road, I glanced back at my sons in my mirror.
Their eyes were wide. They seemed a bit stunned. Good, I thought. Better their daddy shake them up a bit now than a boss or policeman when they are older. Walking through a forest, it isn’t necessary to “look up” in order to know what kind of tree you’re under. Merely picking up a leaf will suffice. One leaf will tell you whether it’s an oak above you or a eucalypt. Is this a healthy tree? Is it a tree I can lean against? Might it protect me in a storm?
People are the same. They drop leaves just as surely as a tree. And they drop them often. One needs only to examine a “leaf ” or two from a person’s life in order to determine their character.
Thousands of people are without pensions today because Enron’s Kenneth Lay didn’t tell the truth. He went to jail but they lost their futures. And what crime did they commit?
Martha Stewart wasn’t punished for insider trading. She went to prison for perjury for lying. Marion Jones, one of the USA’s most decorated Olympic athletes, was stripped of her medals because of steroids but she’s going to prison for lying.
Prison for people who can’t tell the truth—too harsh? Maybe but it sure is a great story for my kids. So Kenneth, Martha and Marion, thanks—I guess. Hopefully, your lives will open many eyes.
I can work successfully with people who disagree with me. I can remain happily married to someone who disagrees with me. I can be proud of children and follow leaders who disagree with me.
But I cannot afford to align myself with a person who doesn’t tell the truth. It is simply too risky.