I’m sure a lot of you have seen the cartoon that shows a man and boy (presumably father and son) with the conclusion “we all have powers.” The boy begins by saying he wishes he had powers . The man directs his attention to a “sad looking uy with the ugly hat.” He then tells the man, “Your hat is awesome! And you’re awesome for wearing it.” The man thanks him and smiles.
Last year saw this posted on a number of streams and was prompted to write a post about it on my Kallahmagazine blog.
I get it that it’s a nice idea to make people – even random strangers – feel good by saying something nice to them. However, that should not be false flattery. The man who gives the compliment refers to the hat as ugly to the boy. That makes it clear that he doesn’t really consider it awesome. He could have come up with another compliment that wouldn’t be a blatant lie, perhaps complimenting the man on his bag or his tie.
As it is, the example set for the boy is that you can make friends and influence people by lying rather than looking for something you can truthfully point to as positive. This is a very bad example, for the child learns that lying is the way to achieve one’s goals. The end justifies the means.
The Talmud takes a different view of what a parent should teach a child There’s an (Yevamos 63a) account of a clever child who figured out a solution to the problem of his mother always making the opposite of what his father, Rav, requested for dinner. He switched the dish when conveying the request to his mother. His father noticed the change and remarked on it to his son who then proudly revealed his strategy.
Rav ordered him to cease and desist. “Do not do this,” he said, “so you will not learn to lie.” Not willing to compromise on the truth — even for the sake enhanced harmony — was a powerful lesson for a child. And that child grew up to be Rav Chisda.
Now to connect the point of the previous two paragraphs: let’s look at what Aharon HaKohen was famous for. Chazal say that all the Jews mourned him — even more than Moshe — because he was an ohev shalom verodef shalom [a lover and pursuer and peace]. He excelled at reconciling people who had a falling out. How would he do it? He’d go over to each person and tell him/her that the other wanted to make up. But, here’s the big difference between a great man and the one shown in the cartoon: he wasn’t lying. He had the ability to recognize the part of the person that really did want to make up. That’s what he brought out in people. And that’s how he proved so successful in bringing about peace.
PS A few weeks after I first posted this, I read R. Dr. Abraham Twerski’s book, Life’s Too Short! St Martin’s Press, 1995). On p. 158, he addresses this exact point of building self-esteem without resorting to lies, particularly in a relationship with a child. He recounts his thoughtful response to his 7-year-old grandson’s violin playing:
Although the melody was grossly off tune, I was about to say, “That was beautiful. I’m really proud of you. I caught myself, because it was not beautiful, and to say so would have been a lie. Instead I said, “I know that tune. Let’s have a concert. You play and I’ll sing it.” We did so, and that child beamed with pride. I had acknowledged his playing a melody that I could recognize, and I had not lied to him.