Is honesty ALWAYS the best policy? Part 1

I was going to title this post, “What the birds and the bees taught me about marriage.” Then I realized that the stories I am about to tell could be quite controversial. Many of you might want to leave comments about how I am the worst mother in the world. It’s for this reason that I’m splitting this post into two parts. Today comes two stories about honesty and your chance to tell me that you think I should be incarcerated. Tomorrow comes how to apply it all to your marriage.

Story #1

A recent conversation with my 7 year old went like this.

Kid: “Mommy, do you know that there are people who have gotten drunk before?”

Me: “Yes, I know this. As a matter of fact, I’ve gotten drunk before.”

Kid: “No way! Really!?! Wow! You? No! Really? What was it like?”

Me: “I didn’t like it that much. It made me feel out of control and I was really sick the next day. I didn’t like that. That’s why I hardly ever drink. It makes Mommy sick.”

Kid: “I don’t think I ever want to get drunk.”

Kid sits and looks pensive for a while.

Kid: “Mommy?”

Me: “Yes?”

Kid: “Does Daddy know?”

Me: “Yeah, Daddy knows. And you know what? He’s gotten drunk before, too.”

Kid: “No way! Are you joking with me?”

Me: “No, I’m not joking. And here’s something that is really going to blow your mind. GRANDMA has been drunk before!”

Kid: “Whaaaaaaat? Grandma?!?”

Me: “I know! And when she got drunk, she accidentally threw her scarf in the toilet!”

Kid: “I’m never getting drunk.”

Story #2

I’m sitting outside and enjoying a beautiful evening with my 7 year old.

Kid: “Mommy?”

Me: “Yes?”

Kid: “How do babies get made?”

Me: “Well you already know that they come out of a mommy’s belly, right?”

Kid: “Yeah but how does the baby get in the mommy’s belly?”

Long silence as I weigh pros and cons of different answers.

Me: “It happens when a boy puts his penis in a girl’s vagina.”

Kid looks as if I told her that the wonderful dinner we just consumed was really composed of our pet dog.

Kid: “What? No way! No! You’re joking, right? Are you joking? You’re joking?”

Me: “No, that’s really how they get there. Does this bother you?”

Kid: “No, well…..Does it hurt?”

Me: “Only if the boy does it wrong.”

Kid, looking very relieved: “Oh! That’s good!”

Me: “You don’t have to worry about this for a really long time. But when the time comes, I’ll tell you what you need to know so the boy doesn’t do it wrong.”

Kid: “Thank you!”

Me: “Now, honey, most of your friends don’t know about this. Just like you know curse words but you don’t say them because it’s not polite, it’s important not to talk about this at school. Some parents might not think their kids are ready to know this yet. Okay?”

Kid: “Sure Mommy. It’s our secret.”

Later I tell my husband about the conversation.

Husband: “You told her what!?!”

Me: “I told her the truth. Should I have told her that babies come from storks? That it’s magic?”

Him: “No, but what about telling her that babies are made when a man loves a woman and a woman loves a man or something like that?”

Me: “So then as soon as she kinda likes someone she’s going to start worrying about accidentally getting pregnant? I don’t think so.”

Him: “But still.”

Me: “What would you have told her?”

Him: “I would have told her to ask her mommy.”

Me: “That’s what I thought.”

A little commentary: I’m a big fan of honesty, if you couldn’t tell. I often think that people shy away from honesty in an attempt to protect others. Yet I think dishonesty actually hurts more than it helps. That’s why, when I was chatting live with ABC viewers yesterday about teens and dating, nearly all of my suggestions had to do with honesty. You can access the chat here. Watch the video here: video?id=8343892

Tomorrow: What this all has to do with marriage.

Now: Would you have been as honest with your child? Or would you have been evasive? Is honesty always the best policy? Or are there times when it’s better to practice the subtle art of subterfuge? What’s your take?


29 comments… add one

  • Jenni at September 7, 2011, 8:36 am

    Alisa, I love these, and if there’s incarceration involved, I’ll help bail you out! Thanks for the good guidance on being honest with the kiddos.

  • Deena September 7, 2011, 8:37 am

    Truly, I would have said something very similar to what you said. I’ve always been honest with my kids (though I do adjust for age since they’re 6 and 4), but we’ve had conversations about death and religion and gods and I’ve always been as honest as I can be. I’ve always thought a lot of parenting is modeling good behaviors (though I’m not as good as I’d like to be about swearing… LOL!) How else can you teach your kids that they need to tell the truth if you don’t model that behavior for them?

  • Steph Auteri September 7, 2011, 10:49 am

    Kudos to you! Logan Levkoff writes about this kind of thing a lot (as it pertains to sex), and I think you’re both absolutely right. Children should learn about this stuff at home, and early on. If they’re old enough to ask about it, they’re old enough to know. Then again, I’m not yet a parent. Here’s hoping that I can be as honest and eloquent as you when the time comes.

  • Rachel September 7, 2011, 11:21 am

    I completely agree with you in both cases. Good sex education is so important. And, I know you’ll follow up with her later so that as the years go on she’ll understand more and more in equally appropriate ways. And, if you don’t tell kids about what it’s like to be drink I really think they’ll use it as a way to rebel. Especially if they think it’s this amazing thing no one talks about.

  • Rachel September 7, 2011, 11:22 am

    oops I mean’t be drunk and/or drink…

  • K September 7, 2011, 5:29 pm

    I think that honesty was the best policy in these situations. Is it ALWAYS the best? It’s hard to say without knowing all aspects of the situation. But I do think you’re correct in your statement that dishonesty generally hurts more than helps. No flaming here.

  • amy September 7, 2011, 8:50 pm

    One of my favorite quotes (from JFK): “We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it.”

    I don’t think honesty is ALWAYS the best policy but almost always! With my 6 year old, I explained a fair amount about the eggs in a woman and that a part of the dad combines with the egg. I might have even said it was called sperm but she never asked HOW! I’m not sure how I would have answered but I generally try to take my lead from her and answer at her level of understanding AND interest!

    • Lynn H September 8, 2011, 8:29 am

      Amy, I never heard that quote before — LOVE it!!

  • Beth September 7, 2011, 9:07 pm

    My son wasn’t concerned with how babies got in. He wanted to know how they got out. That was a fun conversation for a mom who never experienced a single labor pain. He’s also exceptionally interested in death (his grandpa died last December and then two dear dog friends of ours died last month). We had the whole cremation vs. burial discussion and he now knows, sigh, that my parents will be interred at Arlington, which he is VERY excited about. Sigh. As they have no apparent plans of dying soon, he’s going to have to visit Washington DC some other way :)

  • Maureen September 7, 2011, 11:28 pm

    Honesty is always the best way to go. I also went with the following rule of thumb: answer only the question they ask. It was less overwhelming. When all three of them got to discuss sexuality in school I always got a call from the teachers saying how well they behaved and understood the topics and the bonus was they knew the proper terminology for their body parts.
    @Beth we were like you as well. When questions arose about death it came around people close to us who died. We lived on a farm so again lots of opportunities to discuss where they came from and how they will leave this earth.
    After you see your pet dog have puppies not much more left to the imagination :)

  • Lynn H September 8, 2011, 8:28 am

    Well, if you are going to be incarcerated for those conversations, I’ll be right in there with you! Not only because I really value honesty, but because I have noticed that the bigger “deal” parents make out of something, the more emotionally charged it becomes. But when you answer things matter-of-factly, it just becomes part of the landscape of this big, strange world they’re still trying to figure out. It takes the drama out of it.

    I think it’s just one of those things where you have to listen to your gut and let it provide the answer. Everyone knows their own kids best, and I imagine the “right” answer is different for every kid on the planet. Personally, I always try to err on the side of trusting in my kids and their intelligence. And I’d much rather they hear things from me first rather than on the playground or (even worse!) as the result of an unfortunate internet search!

  • selah September 8, 2011, 9:11 am

    As far as parenting goes, it probably depends a lot on the situation and the child in question in terms of whether or not honesty is the best policy. I have no idea what sort of parent I’d be, since I haven’t gotten there yet. I certainly agree with the previous poster in that I wouldn’t want my kids to find things out from the Internet first!

    But in marriage, I would say 100% that honesty is the best policy. It’s certainly not always the easiest policy, and maybe dishonesty wouldn’t even always be found out, but it discolors everything it touches and the damage it does takes far longer to recover from than just being upfront from the beginning. Just my opinion!

  • Marilyn Bauman September 8, 2011, 9:54 am

    Terrific post. Laughed out loud at all the twists and turns in the conversations. I am a believer in matter-of-fact honesty (even having my granddaugher know my scarf went in the toilet on a particularly unnerving night that alcohol made bearable is something I can live with). Looks like Alisa will have a lot of company in jail.

  • Tracy September 8, 2011, 12:56 pm

    I concur with the rest of the fan club. Honesty is generally the best policy. Kids will eventually find out the truth. Better for them to hear the truth from you for so many reasons. If they catch you in the lie, you give up your credibility. It is extremely difficult to re-earn trust after you’ve violated it. Ditto, for spouses.

  • Jaime September 8, 2011, 1:16 pm

    Good for you. Yes I think honesty is the best policy – tempered for age/maturity appropriateness of course and it sounds like you did just right. And it’s better coming from the parents if they get it from their friends or sibling they may get misinformation or just plain scared by what they hear.

  • Sarah Liz September 8, 2011, 2:24 pm

    LOL! I think you did great!

    #1: I think “horror stories” of being drunk, or how it made you sick or do stupid things is BEST deterrant for preventing children from wanting to drink.

    It’s not like you sat there and listed the ups and downs of sex and alcahol. Or that you made you either sound too fascinating or too horrible. Neutral is good, I think.

    Your daughter is funny “No way! You’re joking right?” That’s hysterical. I have a six year old in my life and when she talks like this, it’s hilariously funny to me.

    Kids are naturally curious and I think that curiosity should be indulged upon. At least in a discussion sort of way.

    On both subjects, which are such important subjects to be discussed, you gave her age-appropiate information.

    Sex was always an open conversation in my house growing up. I started asking questions around 6 or 7, which was normal. My mom was always very honest with me and though she didn’t say EVERYTHING (as no parent should), what she did say was accurate and truthful according to her beliefs.

    To this day, I have one of the healthiest attitudes about sex (I’ve had lovers comment on this, true story), and I owe a lot of that to my parents. It wasn’t encouraged, per se, but it was always open for discussion and I appreciated that.

    Like I said, I think it’s important for parents to give accurate information and yet remain neutral.

    I don’t think kids needs to be “dumbed down”.

    I agree with not telling kids that babies come from storks or even love, because you’re right, the minute they think they “love” someone, sex becomes “okay.” And really, there needs to be MORE than love (which is REALLY easy to mistake) to have sex. Or, at least, there should be. Trust, respect, appreciation, all of that.

    As for alcahol, it should be an open conversation too. I grew up around some alcaholics and it scared me enough to NOT drink a lot as an adult.

    I think an occasional beer or two is just fine, but the reality is that alcahol can be dangerous and being drunk for drunk’s sake is rather stupid (in my opinion, at least). So, I would absolutely tell my kids (if I had any) and DO tell my much younger sisters, and goddaughter, the reality that alcahol can produce. Scare tactics sometimes work best.

    Experts say that children should be given real and honest terms, and I agree with that. Not that any parent needs an “Expert” to help raise their child, but I’m just saying.

    I never understood why parents try and hide so much from their kids. The kids WILL find out anyway, and if they don’t hear it at home, they’ll hear it somewhere else. At least when it starts at home, you can influence your child with YOUR brand of wisdom, honesty and thoughts about any given topic.

    I don’t envy parents, but I do greatly admire them.

    In this case, yes, honesty is always the best policy.

    Great story! Thanks for sharing!

    Many Blessings,
    -Sarah Liz :)

  • Drummer Guy September 8, 2011, 2:42 pm

    Rockin post Alisa,

    If it were me I HONESTLY (lol) don’t know what I would have said. I never had kids. I can think of a few times when maybe honesty isn’t the best policy in marriage. For instance your wife comes home with the most awful looking dress in the history of fashion. But she is very excited about it. She is in love with it & ask your opinion.

    Now we know she really doesn’t want your honest opinion. She wants you to tell her she is beautiful. So I don’t really lie. I just say “You look beautiful honey”. And to me she does. Maybe the dress is not the best looking but the woman in the dress is. Besides sleeping on the couch makes me really sore…HA!!! I crack me up :-P

    On a sadder note I am afraid my marriage has come to an end. It was my decision. I still will not talk badly about her but things happened that justify this action. That being said I will still be talking care of her medical needs, running all the errands she needs & am actually still living under the same roof. We are just living as roommates. Surprisingly this is working very well & she is very happy with this.

    Her love for me faded sometime ago & the only reason she wanted to hold on was she was afraid she would have nobody to take care of her. It was a shocking & harsh truth but at least I can have a normal life again. She has even encouraged me to date & in here words “Go get laid”. She said so with a smile. I guess it tells where her heart has been for some time now. Sorry to report this

    Keep on Rockin Alisa

    • Devastated September 9, 2011, 2:38 pm

      Dear Drummer Guy,
      I am sorry for your loss, and very happy that you are working on getting a new life for yourself. I have very much enjoyed everything you have written on this site and I feel like we are old friends. I hope to hear more from you soon — your comments uplift me! Besides, you crack ME up, too! :)

    • Alisa September 9, 2011, 3:44 pm

      I’m so sorry to hear this. I know it opens some doors for you, Drummer Guy, but I also know that you must be hurting right now, too. I got the sense from your comments just how much you love her. My thoughts are with you!

  • Georgina September 9, 2011, 7:49 am

    Yes, I would have told her the same thing. I’ve had the “talk” with each of our kids who are 10, 8 and 4. We have these two really great books, written back in the early 1970s titled Where Did I Come From and What’s Happening to Me? (that second one is about puberty.) I’m sure your daughter appreciates your candor. It show that you respect her as a person, that you feel she can learn about this and handle it.

    A couple of years ago our son asked us about the “f” word. He’d heard it from a kid at school. I told him it was a really bad word used to describe how a man and woman make a baby and that his friend shouldn’t be saying it and neither should he. I could see him processing that information and then he shrugged his shoulders and that was the end of it. Honest, simple explanation worked best.

    Love your posts, Alisa! Keep ‘em coming!

  • Matt September 9, 2011, 12:59 pm

    Kudos to you, Alisa. For some reason, I find it rare that other parents agree with my honesty is the best policy approach, especially when it comes to sex education of my children. When the time comes for them to make important decisions about it, who wouldn’t want them to have as much education as possible to make an informed decision on their own — rather than making a choice just because you said so, but they don’t really understand it; or, as is too often the case, making a very bad life-altering choice to spite you in a fit of rebellion because you never treated them like the independent and intelligent young people that they are.

    With regards to language, or what some posters refer to as “bad” language or words. I would encourage everyone to think twice about that. I have come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a bad word. Words are just words — combinations of sounds or letters. Assigning “bad” to it is somewhat arbitrary, don’t you think?

    The approach I’ve used, with great success, is that some words are “special” in that they can elicit strong feelings in others who hear them. And, as with just about any other words, they can be used in a bad way — to hurt someone (but you certainly don’t need expletives to do that).

    With that, I’ve always made sure my children understand the meaning of the expletives, proper grammatical usage of them, and most importantly, the reality that their usage is highly dependent on the audience (those who will hear them say it). I’ve always maintained a position that when I’m the audience, they are free to use any words they like, so long as they are used grammatically correctly, and especially in the case of expletives, they are not used to hurt someone. And if they used them in ways that are highly humorous (and not hurtful to anyone), I’ll be the first to engage in raucous laughter. But alas, you won’t hear any of my children using any expletives. Why do you think that is (somewhat rhetorical question, I have my own fairly obvious ideas)?

  • StephanieB September 9, 2011, 4:33 pm

    I really enjoyed this post! I don’t have kids yet, but when I do that is the type of honesty I would like to have with them. If they are old enough to be curious I think thy are ready for the truth. I do think it would be important to do as you did and tell them that some things are not appropriate to talk about with others outside the family. Good things to think about as a future parent.

  • Kristi Dorson September 9, 2011, 11:23 pm

    I’m right there with you! My policy with the kids is “if they’re old enough to ask, they deserve an honest answer”. I can be loquacious so my biggest personal challenge is telling them just what they NEED to know for their age and letting them guide the conversation!

    My son, when he was about 6 1/2, had already asked questions and gotten information from me about menstruation, pregnancy, and ovulation. All separate conversations over several months. We also have talked about fostering children, which we would like to do someday. One day on his way out of school he was talking excitedly about fostering and how he couldn’t wait until we did it. I told him it would probably be a few years, that we had some things to get together first and that Mommy and Daddy wanted to have another baby before we started fostering kids. He says “oh. HEY! I thought you said the Mom produces eggs every month. How come you don’t have a baby every month?”
    “Well, honey, not every egg gets fertilized. That’s what the Daddy does, and it doesn’t happen all the time.”
    “How does the Daddy fertilize the egg?”
    “Well, Mommies and Daddies use a process called sex, or mating… you’ve heard of animals mating to have babies, right?”
    I was assuming the next question would be ‘so what IS sex?’. Instead I get…
    “HEY! Did you know that after they mate, some insects EAT the males??”
    “I *did* know that! Isn’t nature WEIRD?”

    and that was it. Despite my belief in honesty, I couldn’t help feeling like I’d dodged a little bit of a bullet there, lol.
    He still hasn’t asked what sex IS, and he’s 7 now. I know it’ll come up soon enough, and I’ll cross that bridge (honestly) when we come to it!

  • sarah henry September 10, 2011, 11:26 am

    Kids know when their parents aren’t telling the truth. They just do. Good for you for keeping it real. Sure there’s the age appropriate dance around. When my kid was really young he asked me if Santa was real and I would say things like “Some people believe in him.” That was enough for him. Then it moved on to “What do you believe?” And I’d say: “I believe in the magic of Christmas.”
    When he point blank asked me “Is Santa real or not?” I knew he was ready. So I said “Do you really want to know?” He said yes. And so I told him. It was time.

  • Tina September 10, 2011, 6:05 pm

    I love both of the conversations! I hope that other parents will use your post as inspiration to do the same!

  • Angela Jennings September 10, 2011, 6:25 pm

    I’ve been honest with my children about sex, although the only one that’s asked me yet is my daughter. (She’s fifteen now and is FULL of questions). My son, I think, thinks he’s learned all he needs to know in the school-sponsored sex education class. However, if he has questions, he’d probably ask his dad before he’d ask me anyway :) . Is honesty always the best policy? Depends on the person, their relationship with you, and the circumstances. Although, I’d prefer to be told the truth than lied to any day.

  • Yvonne September 27, 2011, 9:24 pm

    LOL … this totally takes me back to when i first started talking about this topic with my daughter. When she was in 4th grade, I took her to a class at the health museum on “our changing bodies” and they covered pregnancy/menstruation/etc. She seemed pretty stunned and didn’t say too much – other than the uterus looked like a space alien.

    Fast forward a few days and I wake up at midnight to a tap on the shoulder. She wants to know when her eggs will be fertilized. Huh??? So I told her it would happen when she is married. Yeah … she knew that … but WHEN?

    So I told her everything. She’s stunned – like trying to comprehend the most unearthly thing ever. She didn’t even have an inkling about any of this and it’s bugging her. So she asks if my husband and I do that – I tell her yes. And she’s even more stunned because “Daddy doesn’t look like he could do all that. Maybe he’s been doing it wrong this whole time and that’s why I never got a sister.” hehehe

  • Ashish Virmani December 31, 2011, 12:42 pm

    We are all probably taught the value of telling the truth when we are young but somewhere into adulthood, the real world with all its deceptions and follies, can make that a distant memory. Yet there is a school of thought, in the Christian, Buddhist and Gandhian tradition, that believes that being honest is truly the most rewarding and satisfying way to live. Is honesty then, the best policy after all?

    Spiritual savant Nandinii Sen agrees, “Integrity towards oneself is very important,” she says. “One has to be true to oneself and true to the path one has chosen in life. I’d tell the truth, but more importantly I would live the truth. True honesty is that which translates in your life with your action. So if I say I’m on a diet, or I say that I’m doing charity, it should not merely be lip service. I should actually live out what I’m talking about.”

    On the other hand, with regard to being brutally honest with other people about their realities, she begs to differ. “Being brutally honest with someone else can sometimes be hurtful to the other person. Very often one has to consider matters from an emotional point of view when dealing with other people.”

    Tarot card reader Munisha Khatwani says that for her honesty is definitely the best way to live. “The truth sets you free. Because if you tell one lie you have to think of several other lies to cover up that one lie. In the art of tarot that I do, where I predict peoples’ futures, it is essential to be honest with my clients. That’s because they take life-changing decisions based on the predictions and dishonesty on my part cannot be tolerated under any circumstances. Sure, one can put across the truth gently at the most, but one must never deviate from the truth.”

    Says psychotherapist Seema Hingorrani, “The more you safeguard your personal integrity — such as in acts of speaking the truth and not lying, not cheating others or stealing — the less mess you have in your head.”

    Hingorrani says that in her many years of practice as a professional counsellor, she’s noticed both honest and dishonest behaviour among clients. “I’ll say this — that honesty is the only thing that takes you up the corporate ladder, despite the difficulty of remaining completely honest at all times. I’ve seen dishonest people plunge down the ladder without a trace. Also, whether in family relations or at work, it is vital to take the path of truth. Not only does it allow you to sleep better at night, but the pattern of dishonesty is a never-ending whirlpool, which ultimately drowns the individual indulging in it.”

    She adds that the quality of honesty makes people who practice it radiate a certain spiritual power. “People in higher positions of power are, with a few exceptions maybe, invariably honest. It’s a difficult path to follow, but what comes out of it is unbelievably rewarding.”

  • Wendy February 14, 2012, 1:42 pm

    Do you feel honesty with your child is the best policy when the honesty affects other family members with children. My nephew was not old enough to be told by my sister that I and my present husband were married before. So much so he started a rumor that my children were adopted which is not true. He clearly did not understand what he had been told. My children are 10 and 12 and I do not feel it is necessary to tell them something that happened way before they were born. If they asked I would tell them. But clearly if the honesty approach she has affects other families she should just mind her own business.


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