“A-dunk-a-dunk-a-dunk-achino!” The kid did some 70’s move as he sang and swiveled his knees. I was a little stunned. “Have you ever seen Jack and Jill?” he asked. Still stunned.
“You know Al Pacino?”
“In the movie, he does this commercial for Dunkin’ Donuts, and this thing where he goes a-dunk-a-dunk-a-dunkachino. Like this!”
I looked around. Sure enough, we were in a Dunkin’ Donuts. I was waiting for my order, #776, and here was a middle school kid I didn’t know doing some disco move in the pickup line. I laughed. “That’s funny. Maybe I should watch it…”
“Blah-blah-blah order is ready.” The announcement was unintelligible, but the kid quickly snatched the bag.
“Well, that’s my order. Bye!” He was quick, but I managed to glimpse the receipt as it swept by me. I thought it read #776, but wasn’t sure…
“Bye–” I tried to say, but he was already out the door. I waited. #777. #778. #779. Late for work, I was still standing there, looking and feeling increasingly foolish.
One of the clerks took pity and checked my order. “Someone took your order,” she said, with slight irritation.
“Oh, really…” I swallowed my humiliation.
I pride myself on being able to read people well. As a physician-in-training, it has become a crucial skill to make quick, accurate assessments of a person’s mood and motives. As a future pediatrician, I like to think that children are even easier to read, that they have an innate innocence to make lying a difficult thing for the young child to do. But I can no longer believe this to be true.
“Can I have an extra cookie for my grandma?”
“He said I could take an extra piece of candy.”
“She hit me.”
“He did it.”
“I don’t want to drink water. I’m allergic to water.”
These are direct quotes from children of all ages in my neighborhood. Lying, it seems, is a natural part of development, an inevitable process in the formation of a moral conscience. It seems that children are most likely to lie to escape from trouble, though they may also lie in order to attain something they want. Classically, it seems, this behavior begins to develop at the age of four and becomes more sophisticated and intentional as children develop a stronger intuition of the world around them and how their actions influence that world. People speculate about the origins of this behavior (depending on your theory of mind), but it seems to sprout from a survivalist instinct to protect oneself. Their understanding of its morality, of rightness and wrongness, then matures based on the instruction of their parents and caregivers. Like any other moral behavior, its persistence and complexity will typically depend on how consistently it is weeded out or neglected.
What I find interesting is that, though there is consensus that lying is inevitable, natural, and shapeable, there are conflicting thoughts on how such behavior compares to that of adults. Do children feel more or less guilt when lying? Do they do it more easily than adults? Do they come to believe the lies they tell? Is it easier to detect that a child is lying than it is for an adult?
I’ve developed my own thoughts on cues to a lie over time. Sometimes it comes as a matter-of-fact statement that seems unusually out of place, an attempt to build credibility that wouldn’t ordinarily have been necessary. Often it’s a story with details that sound too scripted and well rehearsed, a story that is a little too inflexible or stiff for the occasion given. Usually the tipoff is an outrageous inconsistency or impossibility within the lie itself… like being allergic to water.
While the media makes much of physical cues and “tells” like shifty eyes, nervous tics, and sweaty palms, it seems that simple attention to the story matters much more… and that plain questions are more likely to unearth the deceit or goad us into confession. This is precisely what God does in the Garden of Eden, speaking to newly formed children whose nascent moral “enlightenment” has inevitably birthed in them the development of deception.
“Where are you?” [Some weird story with strange details about being naked and afraid.]
“Who told you you were naked?” [Didn’t even bother to answer the question.]
“Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” [Blame shift.]
“What is this you have done?” [Blame shift some more.]
It is easy for me to accept that adults, including myself, lie. But the fact that children lie still bothers me deeply. I feel bent on preserving the myth of child-like innocence even when observation, research, and biblical history all demonstrate their behavior to be universally and intractably corrupt.
In popular culture, we speak of “faith like a child,” but I think Christians suffer from misinterpretations of what Jesus believes about children. It is true that he guards their purity with ferocious diligence. “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea,” he says in Mark 9. But the protection of purity should not be confused with an innate innocence. In fact, the phrase “faith like a child” does not even exist in the Bible. Rather, it is likely a summarization (or bastardization, if you are less forgiving) of Luke 18:
People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” – Luke 18 (also in Matthew 18 and Mark 9)
There is a clarification in the parallel account of Matthew 18:3-4 that “such as these” probably means “lowly position”, or “humble”. Not innocent or charming or cute or even simple. Humble. Teacheable. Correctable.
What we see in our children is a reflection of who we are. What we are accountable to is only demonstrated by what they then become. We are the children of Adam and so reflect his independence, arrogance, and sense of self-preservation. But we have been redeemed by Christ, who sacrificed every protection and privilege that we might have salvation. Therefore, the children we train and the society we forge is a direct representation of our faithfulness to a mandate to champion purity and embrace humility.
So what does it say about us when the murder and abandonment in a dumpster of a newborn can only merit a two-year maximum prison sentence? When our children are massacred and our weapons manufacturers have the audacity to call for more guns? When our children shit themselves by preventable diseases and starve by negligence? Are run over and imprinted by track marks? Prostituted and enslaved? Aborted?
I’m fairly certain that my breakfast was stolen by the Dunkachino Kid. There were plenty of other suspicious elements to support this: I did not recall him waiting in line before or after me; he was alone; he did not check the order himself; his speech and actions seemed unusually rigid and rehearsed; so on and so forth. In the end, perhaps it was all an innocent error. But even if it was not, he wouldn’t have been the first to try and swindle me so boldly and under the pretense of innocence. I once had a thirteen-year-old neighbor threaten to accuse me of child abuse because I wouldn’t give him a toy that belonged to my brother. It stunned me, perhaps because we were in the suburbs, perhaps because I still believed in childhood innocence.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. I live in a new neighborhood with new rules and new realities. Here, the same children that lie to get more cookies (which we give out for free anyways) will tell me about the drug deals, the beatings they see their friends get, and the shootings that happen around the block. Those stories I value… not because of their innocence or lack of embellishment, but because of a humility that is willing to speak truths that no one else will.
The real question is if we will allow the Kingdom of God to come and raise us all.