When the Truth Hurts

Is it ever O.K. to tell a little white lie?

Illustration by James Steinberg

OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES observed, "Pretty much all the honest truth-telling there is in the world is done by children." He might have been right, but that doesn't mean kids always tell the truth.

Just like adults, many kids are prone to stretch the truth, sometimes to the breaking point. And just like adults, their lies sometimes get them into more trouble than telling the truth would have. In fact, most people—kids and adults—would benefit from the wisdom of Mark Twain. "If you tell the truth," Twain wrote, "you don't have to remember anything."

The bad news is that kids typically learn the danger of lying only through painful experience. The good news is that Scout leaders can help them minimize the pain by exploring the issue through ethical dilemmas like the one below.

The Dilemma
When 13-year-old Raymar moves with his family from Duluth, Minn., to Tampa, Fla., he sees a chance to reinvent himself. Shy and small in stature, he never quite fit in back in his Minnesota Scout troop. He hopes things will be different with his troop in Florida.

His new senior patrol leader, Bret, is really friendly. While several other Scouts look on, Bret asks Raymar about life in northern Minnesota. "I'll bet you spent a lot of time at Northern Tier," he says.

"Sure," Raymar says. "Minnesota is lake country. We went canoeing all the time."

But that's not exactly true. His troop went canoeing a lot, but Raymar never went along on those trips with the rest of the guys. In fact, he's never been canoeing in his life and just barely passed his swim check at summer camp.

It seems like a harmless white lie, though. After all, what are the chances that his new troop will ever do any serious canoeing? Tampa is sailing and powerboat country.

Then Bret drops the hammer. "That's great! We're planning a canoe trip on the New River up in West Virginia this summer," he says. "Mr. Swenson says it's a pretty wicked river, so we could use a good instructor. How about you teach us some paddling techniques at next week's meeting?"

Before Raymar can figure out what to say, Bret waves the Scoutmaster over. "We're all set for next week, Mr. Swenson," he says. "A real Northern Tier paddler is going to teach us all about canoe strokes."

Discussion Topics
As so often happens, Raymar's white lie takes on a life of its own. He now faces some unpleasant options.

He could tell the truth, which would cost him his credibility with the senior patrol leader and Scoutmaster. He could accuse the senior patrol leader of misconstruing his words, which might make the SPL angry. Or he could compound the lie, which would just delay the inevitable exposure of his dishonesty.

Although he possibly could learn enough canoeing techniques to fake his way through a dry-land demonstration, he would surely expose his lie on the trip—unless, of course, he made up an excuse for not participating.

To explore Raymar's dilemma, begin by asking the Scouts these questions:

  • Did Raymar tell a lie, a half-truth, or just less than the whole truth? Does the difference matter?
  • Why do you think he lied about his canoeing experience?
  • How did his need to make friends lead him into telling lies?
  • Was he wrong to lie? Why or why not?
  • If he ended up teaching canoeing skills without knowing anything about canoeing, someone could get hurt. Does that make any difference? Would it have been better if he had lied about something less important?
  • How could he have avoided telling a lie in the first place?

Next, ask the Scouts to identify all the actions Raymar could take to solve his dilemma. Be sure they include the three options above. Then ask:

  • What might happen next if he took each action?
  • What might be the best possible result of each action?
  • What might be the worst possible result of each action?
  • How does each action square with the Scout Law?
  • What do you think is the best action he could take? Why?

Finally, challenge the Scouts to think of times when they have been in a situation similar to the one Raymar faces. If someone feels comfortable enough to share his story with the group, invite him to do so. Then, discuss the last five questions in relation to that story.

Top of Page

May - June 2011 Table of Contents