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HAGELIN: As Te’o learned, a little white lie can snowball

- - Monday, February 11, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Culture challenge of the week:

"Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."

That famous quote by Sir Walter Scott was one of my father's favorites. And it never applied more perfectly than to the tangled mess Notre Dame football sensation Manti Te'o recently found himself in.

One of the most heartwarming stories of the sports world last year came out of South Bend, Ind., where Te'o played through the tragedy of his girlfriend's death en route to an awards-filled season. Sports fans poured out their love and support to the heartbroken, exemplary young man persevering to achieve great things in spite of great loss. The college football world, however, was turned upside down recently with the shocking news that Te'o's "girlfriend" had never existed.

Fans divided into two groups: those who thought Te'o had invented the whole thing for his own publicity, and those who felt Te'o was the victim of a cruel prank. As the facts emerged, it became clear that Te'o was duped. The girlfriend he met online was invented by a prankster. Her story, background, family, illness and death were a work of fiction, a tale spun and perpetuated as a joke. Although many people have found true love through online dating sites, Te'o, like others who have found treachery in online relationships, was fooled -- big time.

But Te'o was not without fault: He had actually lied to his friends and family months before, saying that he had met the girl in person and taken her on dates, when actually he had only texted and spoken with her on the phone. And when Te'o discovered the truth that his dead girlfriend had never existed, he played along with the story rather than acknowledge that he had been fooled.

The man who finally admitted to creating the prank said that he never intended for the joke to go as far as it did. But one lie built upon another became an obsessive pattern of calls, texts and emails. The web of lies hurt not only Te'o, but also his family, friends and fans, who tirelessly supported the young man as he grieved the death of a young woman he really believed existed.

Te'o himself never envisioned the consequences of his own white lies. And therein lies one of the dangers of dishonesty -- it is impossible to predict exactly how much damage a lie will do. Even seemingly insignificant little white lies can create trouble.

The story is also a vivid reminder that when lies appear in a relationship, red flags should wave furiously. Sometimes lies are told in order to hide something about the relationship from close friends and family. People in a relationship with someone much older or much younger may find themselves fudging the truth because they fear disapproval of their age gap. Similarly, disparities in education, background or values may prompt deceit.

But even small lies can snowball and end up doing far more damage than originally intended.

How to save your family: Build relationships on absolute honesty

Te'o fans of all ages have been let down by a very likeable sports hero. It's a great time to take the bizarre story, humble ourselves by admitting our own mistakes, and use both Te'o's and our errors to help teach our children about the vital importance of honesty.

Instill the love of truthfulness while children are young; build their characters on a foundation of honesty, by always modeling the behavior in your relationship with them. Teach them that once a person becomes comfortable telling lies, it becomes a habit, and then second nature. If you need to fess up about times when you have been less than honest with your sons or daughters, now is a great time to ask for forgiveness and use the opportunity to create a stronger, more open bond with them.

According to one study, the average person routinely lies four times per day. Undoubtedly, most of these lies are 'little white lies' with no intent to harm ("Sorry I didn't return your email. My Internet was down," etc.) Te'o's situation is a stark reminder about how easily lies multiply and create much more damage than expected.

As our culture becomes more self-focused, honesty grows scarce. Facebook and Twitter, for example, provide countless opportunities for children to lie, stretch and embellish the truth. And the temptation is magnified in relationships that begin online, without in-person scrutiny.

We can help our children avoid a host of ills if we set a standard that insists on truth. Help your children see that the inclination to lie about something in a relationship is a tip-off that those actions themselves may not be good. Scripture teaches us: "Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God" (John 3:20 NIV).

We all need to remember that at the end of the day, only the truth sets us free. Embarrassment fades and memories dim. But absolute honesty is the best foundation for every facet our lives.

Rebecca Hagelin can be reached at rebecca@howtosaveyourfamily.com.