The Moxie of Truth: We Can Handle It


Truth does not lie in something already known,

or something finally knowable, or in an absolute,

but rather in what arises and comes to pass.

- Karl Jaspers

nadequate adults prepare us inadequately. Even loving and well-meaning adults unwittingly pass on psychological errors and naïveté. Flaws in our upbringing are what create the psychological barbs that lie in wait and prick us just when we are ready to step up in life. We were headed toward good – even great – things in our lives when we hit a snag and everything seemed to unravel.

The snags aren’t, surprisingly, the overt misbehaviors of those adults entrusted with our nurturing. And they aren’t the tough times we encounter in our life. It is not, for example, the drunkenness of a parent, the hostility of a peer or the arbitrariness of a teacher that damages us. Those aspects of a childhood can be difficult to handle and even tragic, but they do not have to prick us later in life. When we get snagged in adulthood, it is because of the deception that often springs up around those misbehaviors and tough times of our childhood.

Lies and secrets are what create long-term damage in children.

For example, if young Margaret’s mom or dad is often drunk and everyone acknowledges that truth, she will have to incorporate the bad luck of having a parent organized around alcohol into her reality. But she will remain in good faith with her emerging sense of self. Here is why: someone has cared for her enough to tell her this difficult truth and, by doing so, has validated her evolving sense of reality. That truth-telling adult has also given Margaret the message that she can be trusted to handle the truth. Margaret now knows what she knows and can trust what she knows. She also learns to trust in her ability to handle some of the more difficult facts of life. Her developing existential intelligence remains intact. Suppose, however, someone tells Margaret that Mommy is just lying down with a headache or that Daddy is too stressed from work to participate in family life. Or suppose no one says anything at all when Uncle Phil passes out at the dinner table. Then someone has lied. Margaret will start to mistrust her growing internal guidance system, which can’t reconcile the empty bottles she sees with the stories she has been told or with the silence that surrounds the family drama. Each component of her existential intelligence is severely damaged because her growing trust in her own judgment is severely damaged.

The same kind of damage can occur if little David struggles to fit into a peer group – in a new school for instance. If he is told that making new friends can be difficult and that sometimes other kids are mean-spirited, David will integrate this challenging truth into his system of beliefs and will decide how to proceed. Warned about difficulties that he had probably already suspected, he now has had his view of the world endorsed by powerful adults. The validation helps him learn to trust himself. He can also trust that his parents will be there as consultants if he should need them, for they have already gone on record acknowledging there may be struggles ahead. Even more importantly, they have demonstrated to him their courage as they bravely share difficult facts with their son. This truth-telling behavior allows his trust in himself to grow just when he needs it the most – while facing a new group of kids. If, instead, David’s struggles are ignored or he is told that he is too sensitive, that he just needs to fight back, or that making friends is easy, the young boy will have to rethink his ability to correctly assess both the situation and his potency. When he compares how much he is struggling with how easy he has been told making friends will be, he will have no choice but to internalize serious self-doubt.

As a final example, if parents help children understand that teachers, coaches, or other grownups are just regular people with regular limitations, then any conflict between the child and an adult can be understood as just another bit of bad luck to be dealt with creatively. If, instead, a parent insists that the coach is always right and always good, then problems that arise have to be the child’s fault. Coaches are, in fact, often wrong and sometimes bad. When this truth is withheld, the child will be sent unprepared into potentially dangerous situations.


Reason and Existenz

- Karl Jaspers

Dance of Intimacy

- Harriet Lerner

Drama of the Gifted Child

- Alice Miller


Crooked Little Heart

- Anne Lamott

The Art of Mending

- Elizabeth Berg

The Lovely Bones

- Alice Sebold



Send your questions to me at:


Lies are what turn a good childhood into a bad one and a bad childhood into a tragic one.

A word here about how to interact with the lying liars of your childhood as you work through this material. The adults who mislead us are rarely evil. What they are, rather, are deeply unfortunate folks who, to a greater or lesser extent, have yet to reverse their own birth cursedness. As a result, they remain wounded souls. Because they have not become healthy individuals over the course of their lifetime, they are unable to reliably provide honest and wise parenting. Instead, they tend to avoid important conversations and tell countless lies. Also, shame about their own lack of existential intelligence has likely made them defensive and stingy rather than open and generous. It is beyond the scope of this article to address the psychological/spiritual dilemma of how to relate to these folks in your life as you are healing. There are many outstanding books that address the spiritual dilemma about how to deal with poor parents. Some are traditional self-help books such as Dance of Intimacy by Harriet Lerner or Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller. Many are novels that characterize a healthy working through of the trauma of having less than perfect parents, such as Crooked Little Heart by Anne Lamott, The Art of Mending by Elizabeth Berg, or The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. I have designed this website to cover the psychological skills that underlie important aspects of personal growth such as forgiveness, communication, limit setting, and so on that can support you as you decide how to react now to the people who raised you.

Lies, damned lies and poor parenting

Each lie we are told replaces a truth. Each truth we are denied steals a life lesson from us. Life lessons are how we learn existential intelligence – how we learn to face those big, challenging questions and how we develop the skills to direct our own lives. When the adults on duty cannot honor a child with the truth, they do not adequately prepare that child for a healthy adulthood. Lying sabotages evolving self-construction in several ways.

First, by hiding hard truths from children, parents miss the teachable moments inherent in difficulty. Training in existential intelligence, on the other hand, is exactly what occurs when hard truths are exposed, options explored, efforts extended and precious stipulation expressed. David can learn a great deal about himself, for instance, in an honest discussion with adults about how scary it is to go to a new school. His parents’ willingness to sit down and consider his upcoming dilemma demonstrates their respect both for him and for his ability to handle the truth. Safe in the warmth of their esteem and the strength of their courage, he can consider his options for the challenge ahead and muster his growing self-confidence.

Lying parents also miss the opportunity to show their children what leading a powerful life actually looks like, because a pattern of lying indicates that they themselves lack the characteristics of a good leader. For when you have a healthy self-confidence, are good at making existential choices, have passion and resilience, and can trust your ability to collect ample, accurate information, there is rarely a reason to lie. What poor parents are modeling in place of leadership is the fact that they can’t handle the truth or the need for their kids to handle the truth. It is very hard to watch your child struggle, but you have to be able to do just that – and do it often – if you want your child to learn existential lessons. By not sharing difficult truths with children, you’re not showing them how to fulfill their potential, you are showing them the way to avoid the truth and to lie. An over reliance on image management is sure to follow closely on the heels of this unfortunate lesson.

Third, when adults lie to a child, the youngster is forced at an early age to make a tough decision – whom to believe. Unfortunately, because of a child’s innate need to attach to those life-giving adults, she or he will unconsciously decide to believe that the parents are right even when they’re not. That means, of course, that the child also has to believe that her or his internal sense of the truth is wrong. If this decision to believe a deception happens infrequently, the child can self-correct as she or he matures. But if the lies are many, subtle and deep, the child will grow into an adult who doesn’t know whom to trust. Tragically, as a result of accepting layers and layers of lies, our nascent trust in ourselves is replaced with suspicions about both our character and our intellect.

Finally, lying to children and avoiding difficult conversations fill a young person’s data banks with errors and omissions. It is critical to understand here that while honest incorrectness does not have the same underlying intention as does lying, it does have the same result. There is no avoiding this fact. If we are not told the truth growing up, for any reason, our ability to trust that we know what we know will be severely compromised. Our growing perception of How Things Are becomes tainted with each lie we take in, no matter whether the intentions were malevolent or beneficent and whether the lies were overt or subtle.

We could call these lying folks "earthquake parents" because they give their children an unstable and unreliable sense of the world. Neither an effective nor a kind way to prepare children to enter the adult world. Further, when parents weaponize the truth in order to "keep the kids in line," they are engaging in child abuse.

Here are some examples of lies told to children. Unfortunately, I imagine some of these will sound familiar to you.

1) Mean-spirited overt lies

These are the kinds of lies that precipitate in me nauseatingly high levels of empathic pain as I visualize the effect that the words had on the child. Clients have told me that their parents have said:

• You should have died instead of your brother.

• Your mother killed herself because of you.

• What a miserable child you are.

• I don’t know why I even bother with you.

• You are a disgrace. I don’t even want to look at you.

What appalling things to say to a child. And what lies! These statements are verbal violence, and verbal violence is child abuse.

2) Mean-spirited subtle lies

When my clients talk about these kinds of lies, I feel like a district attorney who must make the case that, despite the subtlety, a psychological crime has been committed. Subtle, mean-spirited falsehoods sound like this:

• I suppose you tried your hardest.

• You can’t help it if you’re not a risk-taker.

• Your father and I don’t care if you go to college or not.

• Your mother can’t help herself, she’s very ill.

• I meant to make time to attend your concert, but I got so busy at work.

• We did the best we could.

Ironically, these subtler lies often worm deeper into a child’s psyche than the more overt ones.

3) Kindly meant overt lies

It is easy for me to feel a little like a brute as a clinician when I have to rebut “rose-colored-glasses” lies like these, so I remind myself that people are not only meant to handle difficult truths, but are better off when you trust them to do so. Some examples of these “happy-go-lucky” lies are:

• Mommy and daddy will always be here for you.

• Of course Daddy loves you. He’s just a gruff man.

• Everyone who tries should win a trophy.

• You’re the best one on the team.

• That scar gives you character.

• Don’t tell your sister, but you’re my favorite.

When these Pollyanna lies get cleared up, clients report feeling more authentic. The part of them that never really believed the lie in the first place has been vindicated. They are glad to know what they know, even if it’s a difficult truth.

4) Kindly meant subtle lies

Although meant to bolster our self-esteem, the following subtle lies of optimism send us a fairly consistent message that we need further coddling. Not a great message to receive if we’re trying to learn how to become more self-directed.

• Everything’s going to turn out just fine.

• You can be anything you want to be.

• Something good will come of this, you’ll see.

• We never have to worry about you, you are such an easy-going kid.

• We trust you, it’s your friends we don’t trust.

• You should always be nice to your little brother.

In order to become a full-fledged adult, we have to decide for ourselves what messages of hope we find believable and what values we will be working to fulfill throughout our lives. This can be hard to do if we have heard too many sugarcoated stories.

5) Lies of omission

Again, whether due to mean-spiritedness or benign ignorance, when important information is left out of a child’s upbringing, sharp misunderstandings will be planted and damage will follow. None of us wants to proceed in life with many a truth hole in our personal universe. What are common lies of omission?

• Silence around the tension in the parents’ marriage

• No words of consolation within the family after a traumatic event

• Weak positive feedback after an impressive achievement

• Tepid critical feedback after misbehavior

• An unwillingness to discuss uncomfortable subjects such as sex, drugs, feelings, etc.

• The absence of consistent, clear and appropriate boundaries

• Disinterest in a child’s evolving hobbies or passions

• Lack of acknowledgment of the need for help from outside the family

• No self-disclosure from adults about important aspects of their lives

In everything I write, I hope to make clear that withholding truth from children is as disastrous as is overt lying. It is even worse when followed, as it most often is, by the pretense (or I should say the ultimate lie) that the child has been told the truth and was fully prepared by the adults to handle life. The silence of under-parenting sends an ironically loud message: Stoicism is how it’s done in this family. Don’t ask, because we won’t tell. Children then adhere to that family legacy and keep the code of silence even outside the family, unfortunately preventing themselves from obtaining truth from other sources.

Most of us will experience a range of lies in our childhood, then, from mean-spirited, overt attempts to undermine our growing self-confidence to well-intentioned, subtle attempts to artificially bolster our sense of self. Each and every lie has the potential to prick us later in life when the particular truth that it had replaced becomes vital for us to know. When Margaret needs the truth that she can trust her perceptions, she will find the lie instead that she can’t. When David needs to consult with an adult about how to do something new, he will tell himself instead that things should be easy and he shouldn’t seek advice. When the child with the bad coach needs the truth that she is entitled to protect herself from ineffective or even dangerous adults, that child will find the lie that setting boundaries with an adult is unacceptable.

Lies create a fissure in our ability to trust our sense of reality. That fissure stays hidden deep within our psyche waiting to crack us apart when we try to use our self-confidence to become a strong, new person. Whenever possible, we want to ferret out the falsehoods told to us in our youth and replace them with the truth. Otherwise, this minefield of misperceptions will remain outside of our awareness and it is dangerous.

Truth be told

Of course, any truth told to youngsters needs to be tailored to their developmental level and individual strength. Ideally you would only speak the truth that matches a child's ability to have the perspective to deal with that truth. For example, absent the statistical sophistication to comprehend the likelihood of an event happening, it's just wicked to tell children about terrifying possibilities. A youngster has no need to hear that the stock market could crash at any moment rendering both parents' jobs superfluous.

Harsh truth telling for honesty’s sake has no place in the upbringing of a child. In addition, inappropriate self-disclosure can be destructive. When parents give children too much information, they are demonstrating the other side of not respecting the truth, that is, disregard for its purpose. For instance, there is no use in telling a child why the fighting is escalating in the marriage, that Dad is going in for a biopsy or that Mom is thinking about moving Grandma into an assisted living facility. Children need to be told the truth when decisions have been reached and information about those decisions is important for them to know. When children are older it might be useful for them to understand why their parents fought or how they reached the decision about Grandma’s care. When Dad is diagnosed, the children must be told if their lives are going to be affected. How and when parents speak truth is of great consequence.

An even more malignant misuse of transparency occurs when parents truth dump in a effort to purge their own uncomfortable feelings. This behavior amounts to crowd-sourcing guilt or despair and is never appropriate. Of course you may wish you hadn't done "X" or that "Y" hadn't happened to you, but work your feelings through with another adult or a therapist, don't use your child as a confessional or healer.

In sum, it hurts a child equally if adults withhold, distort or blurt out the truth. Good parenting and mentoring of a child requires careful, considered and elegant sharing of the truth based on the life of that individual child.

On the other hand

It is important to note here that many families are the opposite of the problematic type I have been describing. Rather than creating a cursed coming-of-age process, good parents protect their children with a grant of love that armors these kids against unnecessary missteps as they move to take control of their lives. Whenever this is true, there has been a generation of legacy breaking in that family’s past – where someone back in time took it upon themselves to stop an intergenerational, centuries-old habit of lying. They healed their own curses, in other words, enough to parent wisely. When kids are valorized by such a blessed parental unit, they believe in their ability to take over the self-making project at childhood’s end.

Let me punch this home: Many therapists believe that a pattern of problems in a youngster means that something isn’t being worked out between the parents. I would extend that to say that the mental health of the child is a result of the extent to which the parents have worked through their own childhood curses.

Two final points

First, for some folks, the lies have done so much damage that self-directed healing is not advisable. This website will not replace therapy if this is true for you. But it can certainly make therapy more efficient if used in conjunction with professional help. The concepts presented here will serve as an adjunct to therapy by helping you repair minor misunderstandings on your own and uncover those major misperceptions that require the assistance of a professional.

Second, it is important to understand that when we negate the lies and regain our precious self-confidence, our lives won’t necessarily be more charmed. But they will be more robust, for we will have regained what the cursedness steals from us – both our spirit and our hardiness. With the sharp misunderstandings corrected, many of those sense-of-reality potholes will be filled in. We will also be better able to rebound from misfortune and take advantage of rich opportunities.

If we weren’t taught what we needed to know growing up, we can learn it as adults. It is terribly exciting to learn foundational truths and to regain resilience. It is powerful to be able to say “I know what I know” and to become a strong contributor to a greater level of elegant truth in the world. You will find yourself with a new passion for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

© Copyright 2024 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.