"Dad? How do you tell the good guys from the bad guys?"
Adam, my six 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 traveling with him. The 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 into 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 Mom didn't marry me right away?" Adam frowned. This was new information. "In fact," I forged ahead, "Mom made me wait a lot longer than I wanted. I took her to eat lunch and dinner fifty or sixty times. We went to ball games. Sometimes, Mom just wanted me to drive her around or take her walking downtown or in the 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 or not 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, Mom wanted to make sure that I was not a bad guy. She only 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 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 six year old in the coonskin hat left my office. Now I was the one frowning. Somehow, I thought, that didn't go just 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? 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?
What if I work hard to build my family's future only to find out that my employer exaggerated the amount of income possible? Am I without risk living in a state where the governor lied to get elected? Am I without risk when other people lie?
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 have boiled my lingering unease down to this: Can my family and I be hurt by someone else's lies … even if I do not know the person? The answer, I am convinced, is an unqualified "yes".
A week later, I was driving the boys home from school. I listened carefully as they discussed something they had heard that day about one of our local politicians.
"I think he is dead,"Adam said.
"He didn't die," his eight year old brother responded. "He is 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, campaign finance laws, and misappropriation of public funds to a child. Then it hit me. "Guys," I said, "He is 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 had 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 had been a lie and I had wondered what kind of adult the mother expected her child to become.
As I turned around in the front seat so that I could face 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 actually have them listen.
"Guys,"I began," what do Mom 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 will be a big, big deal."
"Big trouble," Adam said.
"Right," I continued. "Do you know why Mom and Dad are so concerned about this? It's because when you are a kid and you tell a lie, you only get punished. But if moms 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.
"Did you know," I asked, narrowing my eyes," that some people have lost their homes because they lied? There are parents who have 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 really 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 is 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 all 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.
But what do you think? Was I too hard on Austin and Adam? Am I making too big a deal of this? Maybe. But I'll tell you one thing: Personally, I am concerned that our society is not making a bigger deal of it!
As a society—parents, trusted friends, mentors, employees, leaders, pastors, bosses, aunts and uncles, elected officials—we teeter on the brink of double standards that devastate our credibility with those who watch us the closest … and matter the most. Do you think not? Consider this … as consumers of recordings and magazines and television and film, we financially enable some people to teach by example things with which we disagree. Amazingly, we worship certain entertainers and buy their products knowing all the while we wouldn't even tolerate their behavior in our own family!
Do we think we are the only ones who notice this?
Over and over again, I heard intelligent analysts and sports figures, idolized and respected by millions of people (including me) questioned about an NFL team who—until the Super Bowl—sported a perfect record: "Does the fact that they were caught cheating this past season and issued the greatest fine in the history of the league mar their legacy in your mind?"
And sadly, over and over again, I have listened as they have answered—on every national radio and television network—"No".
These have been the primary reasons:
1) The cheating really didn't help as much as everyone seems to think …
2) Everyone else is cheating and this has been going on for years …
3) If you aren't cheating, you aren't trying …
Please know this: my aggravation is not with the franchise itself. Their quarterback is one of my favorites and I am happy when he plays well. I think their owner is one of the finest men in the league and this past year, the team itself played at a higher level than any team I've ever seen in my life. But they cheated. And my boys know it.
Think with me now … why do we punish a child for looking on someone else's test paper at school? Why do they get a "zero" or a suspension? After all … (see the answers in the paragraph above).
I know … I know … It's not the same thing. You're right. It's worse. The lie in school affects one family. The lie on the sidelines affects our society.
Yesterday someone asked me for whom I will vote in the upcoming Presidential election. My answer was, "I honestly don't know yet, but I'll say this … I am listening to them very carefully."
Don't misunderstand, I am not waiting to hear whether a candidate agrees with me or not. I am an adult and at least intelligent enough to know that I will not agree with everything someone says or does. After all, I got married with that understanding, surely I can vote for a leader with the same realistic expectation!
For nineteen years now, I have lived with a woman who, it seems, disagrees with me on a number of things, yet we continue to forge ahead, creating a home and family that satisfies and fulfills us both. I don't expect my wife to agree with me. I do, however, expect her to tell me the truth. And the truth—even when we disagree—while it sometimes aggravates me, never, ever breeds mistrust.
The same will be true for me as I vote for a presidential candidate.
"Okay, wait," you might say. "Lets not get carried away here. In one breath you're talking about a Presidential election and in another you're talking baseball. This is really not the same thing!"
You are correct, but if I may quote my son, "How do you tell the good guys from the bad guys?"
Walking through a forest, it is not necessary to "look up" in order to know what kind of tree you are under. Merely picking up a leaf will suffice. One leaf will tell you whether there is an oak above you or a maple. Or a poplar or an aspen or hickory. In fact, without even so much as moving your head, you can determine whether it is spring, summer, fall, or winter. Is this a healthy tree? Is it a tree I can lean against? Might it protect me in a storm?
People are the same way. 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 character.
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.
Thousands of people are without pensions today because Enron's Kenneth Lay did not tell the truth. He went to jail, but they lost their futures. And what crime did they commit?
My own hometown, a quiet family resort area, must now live with changes to our lives that can never be undone. Why? Because an elected leader lied. But he is being punished, you say? Sure, but the results of his deception have marred the landscape forever.
Martha Stewart was not punished for insider trading. She went to prison for perjury … for lying. Marion Jones, one of our country's most decorated Olympic athletes was stripped of her medals because of steroids, but she is going to prison for lying. Barry Bonds … who knows if they will get him for performance enhancing drugs, but it probably doesn't matter anyway. He is already been issued a federal indictment … 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 Barry, Martha, Marion … thanks, I guess. Hopefully, your lives will open a lot of eyes.
Still though, I know there are many who will read these words, shrug their shoulders, and say, "I just don't see what's the big deal."
My point exactly.