My five-year-old daughter is a bright, happy little imp who pays attention to everything, chatters at me non-stop and likes to tell stories. Sometimes the stories are pure fantasy: magical tales of stuffed animals come to life, having adventures in dreamy, colourful places. Sometimes the stories start off plausible enough — I had chocolate cake at Auntie Beth’s — and morph into strange, personal experiences that she has devised: First we went to the store to buy the cake but the store was out of cake so we came back home and baked it ourselves but the oven exploded so we made the cake out of mud.
These are stories that stretch both her imagination and her sense of self, of place, of an ever-expanding reality and ever-increasing independence. I get it, and I encourage it. And even though these stories are often told as non-sequiturs in the midst of her continuous commentary, it is evident pretty quickly that these stories of works of fiction.
But lately, my daughter’s fictions have cropped up in unlikely and unwarranted places — specifically, where the truth should be.
And these fictions are not accompanied by the catch that makes me realize she is just, literally, telling me a story. They have the realistic beginning, but no fantastic ending to tip me off to the fact that they are a product of her imagination.
In other words, they are lies.
It hasn’t happened a lot (that I know of), and to be sure, they are no more serious than a harmless white lie, but I would prefer my children to be (if not unfailingly honest) skewing towards the truth, especially when it comes to inconsequential matters.
I’ve explained to her a few times the difference between telling stories and telling lies — I’ve told her that when it’s a story, we both know it, but a lie is something only one of knows is not true, so it is therefore a trick and unfair to the other person. I’ve tried to keep it light and age-appropriate, and have told her many times how much I appreciate her stories (I am, after all, a story-teller as well), but that she might get herself or somebody else into trouble with lies.
What I did not tell her was that I really wasn’t expecting to deal with this kind of thing until she was at least 15. And that the truth is, there are many falsehoods I may have missed. That she is smarter than me is something I also did not expect her to realize until at least a few years from now.
So I did what I had to do: I told her a cautionary tale. I told her the story of the The Girl Who Cried Wolf (with apologies to Aesop, that most astute teller of tales that scare the sh*t out of children).
Once upon a time, there was a small shepherdess girl, with blonde hair and blue eyes and bangs, and that it was her job to keep the sheep safe from wolves. But it got lonely out on the pasture day after day, and the sheep were not very good company. In fact, they were pretty baaaa-d company. (sorry) So the little girl would get bored and lonely and cry out, as loud as she could that a wolf was in the meadow, trying to get at the sheep! And the townspeople would come running, and would find no sheep and get angry with the little girl for making them come running. The little girl apologized, and promised she wouldn’t lie about the wolf again, but the next night, she got bored, and cried wolf. The people came running (again) and were angry (again). But the little girl could not help herself. She cried wolf every night that week, and every night angered the townspeople who had come running to the meadow for nothing.
Then one night, after the little girl had promised herself she would not falsely cry wolf, what should happen but a wolf appeared at the meadow’s edge! The girl knew she had to protect the sheep, so she cried WOLF as loud as she possibly could. And nobody came. She yelled again, and again nobody came. They didn’t believe her of course, she had tricked them so often. They didn’t believe that this time she was actually in trouble.
(Here I turned to my daughter. I asked if she understood what was going on. She nodded silently, eyes wide. I continued.)
Well, what do you think happened then? Without the help of the townspeople, the wolf ate all the sheep. And the girl kept crying out to the townspeople, and they never came. So the wolf ate all the sheep, every last one of them.
(I looked pointedly at my daughter)
And then the wolf ate the little girl.
It’s been a while since I caught her in a lie.