Parents may tell white lies for various reasons. It can be continuing the fallacy of Santa Claus, the tooth fairy or Easter bunny. It may be a well-intentioned attempt to shield a teen from unnecessary emotional turmoil. Ideally, these fibs are harmless or protective.
A more harmful example would be an ex-spouse who tells untrue facts about a co-parent to their children or other family members. Typically, there are two versions of the story with the truth somewhere in-between, but the Ethicist column in the New York Times takes the inquiry from a frustrated co-parent at face value.
Husband seeks advice about lying ex
The column is about a decades-long marriage that fell apart because the wife pulled away emotionally and initiated the separation. This led the husband to file for divorce. The agreement had a clause prohibiting the spouse from disparaging the other in front of the children.
Mother admits bad behavior
The wife then initiated a post-divorce meeting with her ex, where she confessed to having multiple affairs, including one that prompted her to propose the trial separation so she could try to coerce the love interest into leaving his wife and marry her. The trial separation left her the option, she said, to reconcile if the other man did not leave his wife.
Mother violates the clause
Since the meeting, the mother spoke badly about the father and blamed him for the divorce and every other obstacle the family faced, including a son who was in and out of jail. The father has since remarried and moved on while the mother is single and struggles financially.
Question: What to do?
The two children are now grown men frustrated with the mother. Does the father give the sons context of what the mother admitted, or leave them to draw their own conclusions?
The ethicists pointed out:
- Sharing the truth would allow the father to give the children a vital context to significant events in their lives. It would also protect the healthy relationship between the father and his two sons from being ruined by the mother.
- The mother has already violated the clause and likely would not be able to take legal action against the father successfully.
Answer: Tell the children
The conclusion is that the father can tell his adult children the truth. This should be done dispassionately for all the reasons given above, particularly in providing them with a better understanding of the family’s troubled history.