Being honest and only telling the truth is not something that most people need to be told to do. Overall, most of us are well aware that lying is bad and that being truthful in all that we do is the only appropriate way to live one’s life. Of course, every once in a while we’ll be tempted to fudge things just a little to get our way, which is why we need to be reminded about being honest when signing official documents, testifying in court, and other such instances. There are also times that the full truth needs to be avoided in order to keep peace and order among people, as long as no outright untruth is uttered. But unless someone is a compulsive liar, which to be sure is a real condition, the majority of the human race does believe in truth and transparency.
There is one area though, that even the most honest person will at times have trouble being straightforward and that is when dealing with children. So often we are tempted to misinform children, perhaps because we feel that their minds are too underdeveloped to understand the truth, so we’ll create an alternate reality for them to keep inquisitive minds at bay.
Of course, children need to be taught on their own level and what we share with them shouldn't go over their heads, which would obviously defeat the purpose of teaching. Our lessons must be made relevant to them, on their terms, but must also always be fully truthful and authentic. But there is a thin line between talking to children on their level and outright fabrication.
Another area that this happens is when making promises to children. Every parent and teacher knows that there are times when we over promise, usually in attempts to get the child to behave or achieve something they are reluctant to go along with. But when it comes to actually following through with the promise, we may come up with a variety of excuses not to. It could be that the child didn’t properly earn whatever it was that we promised and thus doesn’t really deserve it, or perhaps because at the time of the promise we didn’t fully consider what paying up would entail.
Whatever our reasoning, as justified as it may seem to us, in the child’s mind the adult lied. Children don’t grasp the idea of compromise, and they live in a world of black and white. If they were told by an adult that they would receive something and then they don’t, it doesn’t matter how justified the adult is, the child will lose faith in the adult. And once a child witnesses an adult being dishonest with them, even if it’s just in their own mind, their trust in the adult, and by extension the world that the adult represents, will be jaded. Or worse, it will teach them that lying is acceptable just to get your way.
That’s why as parents and teachers we have an enormous responsibility to ensure that anything we tell our children, and especially what we promise them, is fully rooted in the truth. And if the unforeseen occurs and for whatever reason we are unable to follow through, it must be done in the most sensitive and truthful way possible. Tall order to be sure, but if you want the child to trust you down the road, every effort must be made to be as honest and transparent with them as possible.
The same applies to teaching Torah in general. Even when dealing with adults, rabbis and teachers can sometimes be tempted to make things sound more palatable and along the way end up making actual changes just so that people go along with what they’re trying to teach. While there is certainly nothing wrong with making Torah relevant in the modern age, it must always be rooted in absolute truth. Sugarcoating is one thing, but altering the parts of our tradition that might make one uncomfortable is dishonest. And when your student — adult or child — discovers that what you’ve been telling them isn’t true, any opportunity to have an impact will be lost. If you were dishonest about one thing, who knows what other areas of your teaching aren’t real.
Instead, everyone must be taught at their own level, even if that means not jumping into the deep end right away, and at the same time we must be honest and truthful about the authentic meaning of Torah and what it represents.