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"Dad? How do you tell the good guys from the bad guys?”

Adam, my five-year-old, walked into my office wearing a coonskin hat. I was seated behind my desk, working on a publisher’s deadline while he had been upstairs, watching an old Davy Crockett movie with his brother. My boy had seen Davy betrayed by two men traveling with him. The famous pioneer was surprised and unprepared because he’d figured, as had my son, that the men were his friends.

“So how, Dad?” Adam pressed. “How can I tell a good guy from a bad guy?”

As I looked into my son’s innocent blue eyes, I knew I couldn’t ignore this opportunity, deadline or not. Trouble was—I wasn’t sure myself!

“Adam,” I said, lifting him onto my lap, “telling the good guys from the bad guys is something adults struggle with every day. Sometimes it can take a while to know for sure.”

I had an idea. “Buddy,” I said, “did you know that Mom didn’t marry me right away?”

Adam frowned. This was new information. “In fact,” I forged ahead, “Mom made me wait a lot longer than I wanted. I took her out to lunch and dinner fifty or sixty times. We went to ball games. Sometimes, Mom just wanted me to drive her around or take her walking downtown or in a park.”


“So we could talk. So she could ask me questions. She wanted to see if I would ask her any questions and to know whether or not I would listen to her answers.”

Adam shook his head and said, “I mean, why did she not marry you at first?”

This, of course, was the question I had been waiting for. “Because, Adam, Mom wanted to make sure I was not a bad guy. She wanted to marry a good guy.”

Brightening immediately, he said, “And you’re a good guy, right?”

“Right,” I responded. “So, do you know a little more now about telling the good guys from the bad ones?”

“Yes sir!” he said, rolling out of my lap. “You just take ’em to lunch!”

And with that conclusion, my blond five-year-old in the coonskin hat left my office.

Now I was the one frowning. Somehow, I thought, that didn’t go just right.

Then, as I was about to return (a bit unsettled) to my work, Adam popped his head back into the room. Grinning, he said, “And when I take ’em to lunch, I see if they tell the truth. ’Cause if they don’t tell the truth, like the guys with Davy Crockett, then they’re not very good, are they?”

I sat still for a moment after Adam left. Surely, it wasn’t that uncomplicated, was it? I shook my head to clear it. Could simply “telling the truth” be such an obvious designator between good people and bad people? Can a lie make that much difference in a relationship or a business? And how truthful must one be? Would I want someone who leads me, personally or professionally, to allow me to believe something that is not true?

I scribbled down these questions and a few more like them at my desk after Adam had gone. Why did I care? For a time, I wasn’t sure. But I’ve boiled my lingering unease down to this: can my family and I be hurt by someone else’s lies, even if I don’t know the person? The answer, I’m convinced, is an unqualified Yes.

A week later, I was driving the boys home from school. I listened carefully as they discussed something they’d heard that day about one of our local politicians.

“I think he’s dead,” Adam said.

“He didn’t die,” his eight-year-old brother responded. “He’s in jail. Right, Dad?”

“That’s right,” I answered, keeping an eye on them in the rearview mirror.

“What did he do to be put in jail?” Adam asked.

“Well . . .” I took a deep breath, suddenly overwhelmed by the thought of explaining state and federal regulations regarding fraud, campaign finance laws, and misappropriation of public funds to a five-year-old. Then it hit me. “Guys,” I said, “he’s in jail because he lied.”

“Really?” they exclaimed in unison.

“Really,” I said.

Before they could ask any more questions, I pulled off the road and put the vehicle in park. The Davy Crockett conversation was whistling through my head along with an article I’d read that morning about a mother who had helped her six-year- old win concert tickets in an essay contest by declaring in the first sentence: “My father died in Iraq last year.” It was a lie, and I wondered what kind of adult the mother expected her child to become.

As I turned around in the front seat and faced my boys, I knew what kind of adult life I wanted for them. And I was becoming increasingly aware that the window was closing on my opportunity to say anything like I was about to say and have them listen.

“Guys,” I began, “what do Mom and Dad do if you tell a lie?”

“You will punish us,” Austin answered.

“Badly.” Adam felt he needed to add that bit of wisdom.

“That’s true,” I intoned seriously. “You know, we’ve told you that if you tell the truth, the punishment won’t be nearly as tough. But if you lie, it’ll be a big, big deal.”

“Big trouble,” Adam said, adding more wisdom.

“Right,” I continued. “Do you know why Mom and Dad are so concerned about this? It’s because when you’re a kid and you tell a lie, you only get punished by us. But if moms and dads can’t teach their children to tell the truth and the children grow up and they still lie, really bad things can happen.” “If moms and dads can’t teach their children to tell the truth and the children grow up and they still lie, really bad things can happen.”

I paused. “Did you know,” I asked, narrowing my eyes, “that some people have lost their homes because they lied? There are parents who’ve had their children taken away from them because they lied. People can lose their jobs when they lie, and, yes, sometimes people even get sent to jail for lying.

“Always remember this: cheating is lying. Exaggeration—telling your class you caught six fish, when you really only caught four—is a lie. Allowing someone to believe something you know is not true is a lie.

“I love you boys. I want you to grow up to be great men. That’s why you must learn to tell the truth. Even if it’s hard to do. Even if it makes you look bad at the moment. Even if it makes you feel all alone. I will always be proud of you when you tell the truth.”

As I pulled back onto the road, I glanced back at my sons in my mirror. Their eyes were wide. They seemed a bit stunned. Good, I thought. Better their daddy shake them up a bit now than a boss or policeman when they are older.

Recently someone asked me for whom will I vote in the upcoming presidential election. My answer was, I honestly don’t know yet, but I’ll say this, I’m listening to them very carefully. And I must admit that several of them are already off my list. Please! Don’t tell me, on camera, that you’re a fan of one team when you’ve already told me you’re a fan of their archrival. Don’t expect me to believe that you’ll happily pull for the Red Sox when we’ve all watched you wear a Yankees hat or Cubs gear for years!

“OK, wait,” you might say. “Let’s not get carried away here. In one breath you’re talking about a presidential election and in another you’re talking baseball. Those two aren’t really the same thing!”

You’re right. But if I may quote my son, “How do you tell the good guys from the bad guys?”

Walking through a forest, it isn’t necessary to “look up” in order to know what kind of tree you’re under. Merely picking up a leaf will suffice. One leaf will tell you whether it’s an oak above you or a maple. In fact, without even so much as moving your head, you can determine whether it is spring, summer, fall, or winter. Is this a healthy tree? Is it a tree I can lean against? Might it protect me in a storm?

People are the same way. They drop leaves just as surely as a tree. And they drop them often. One needs only to examine a “leaf” or two from a person’s life in order to determine their character.

I can work successfully with people who disagree with me. I can remain happily married to someone who disagrees with me. I can be proud of children and follow leaders who disagree with me. But I cannot afford to align myself with a person who doesn’t tell the truth. It is simply too risky.

Thousands of people are without pensions today because Enron’s Kenneth Lay didn’t tell the truth. He died, but they lost their futures. And what crime did they commit?

My own hometown, a quiet family resort area, must now live with changes to our lives that can never be undone. Why? Because an elected leader lied. But he’s being punished, you say. Sure, but the results of his deception have marred the landscape forever.

Martha Stewart wasn’t punished for insider trading. She went to prison for perjury, for lying. Marion Jones, one of our country’s most decorated Olympic athletes, was stripped of her medals because of steroids, but she’s going to prison for lying. Barry Bonds—who knows whether they’ll get him for performance enhancing drugs, but it probably doesn’t matter anyway—he has already been issued a federal indictment for lying.

Prison for people who can’t tell the truth. Too harsh? Maybe, but it sure is a great story for my kids. So Martha, Marion, Barry, thanks, I guess. Hopefully, your lives will open a lot of eyes.

Andy Andrews is the New York Times best-selling author of The Traveler’s Gift and Mastering the Seven Decisions That Determine Personal Success. His Web site is

Teaching Kids to Tell the Truth

by Andy Andrews
From the October 2008 Signs