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By Tom Shroder
Sunday, May 4, 2008

"I'VE NEVER MET A HABITUAL LIAR BEFORE," my son, Sam, said the other day. He was talking about a friend who had embellished his athletic accomplishments -- on several occasions to several people.

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It's an occupational hazard of parenting that, instead of just having a conversation with the offspring, one feels constantly called on to deliver moral instruction.

"'Habitual liar' is a bit strong," I said. "Usually when people tell lies like that, it's because they feel insecure."

He looked skeptical.

I thought about Liza Mundy's story in today's Magazine (beginning on Page 10) and decided to adapt one of its key pieces of advice: In talking with your teens, your own youthful misdeeds recounted as cautionary tales might become powerful sources of insight.

So, I took a deep breath and proceeded to tell him the following:

When I was in first grade, despite my desperate desire, or because of it, I was not one of the popular kids. This was most painful on the day of the biggest popularity contest: the class vote for safety patrol. As usual, I didn't get any votes. I remember walking home after school clouded in self-pity. When my mom greeted me at the door, I blurted without premeditation: "Guess what! I was just elected to safety patrol."

As soon as the words were spoken, I fervently wished I could unspeak them. But maybe disaster could still be avoided, if I never mentioned safety patrol again. If only my mother would ...

Too late. She was already on the phone, spreading the word to friends, to distant relatives and, most fatally, to the other mothers in our car pool, explaining that I would need to get to school a little earlier now that I had been elected to safety patrol.

Doom. I trudged around for the next few days like a condemned man, awaiting the inevitable. It came one afternoon at the closing bell. The teacher asked me to stay a minute. As the other kids clambered to freedom, my face burned with shame; my heart pounded so loudly that I was sure the teacher could hear it across the room.

"I understand you've been telling people you were elected to safety patrol," she began.

Once again, I was possessed by words that came from nowhere.

"There must have been some sort of misunderstanding," I blurted, no doubt using that word for the first time in a sentence. Then I turned and ran. It was many years -- decades, really -- before I could recall that moment without cringing. This was definitely the first time I'd told my son.

Throughout, Sam had listened attentively. But had the lesson hit home? Was he now ready to accept his friend's prevarication with understanding and compassion? Or, more likely, was he thinking: Dad. What a dork.

Tom Shroder can be reached at shrodert@washpost.com.

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