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Lies we tell children

Posted by Graeme in parenting at 9:42 am on Wednesday, 14 May 2008

After having a go at Paul Graham yesterday for writing outside is area of (considerable) expertise, I am eating my words a little by responding to just such an essay by him. It is true that many people do lie to children. This is what I think we should do.

First the motive for lying, is, as he says, commonly to protect children. This is something that needs to be lifted gradually as they get older. In general many parents are too protective and become busybodies who control their children’s lives well beyond childhood. Laws that treat anyone under eighteen as a small child, for example, by preventing them from pursing hobbies independently also encourage extended childhood.

Sex and drugs is a tricky area. I am not going to lie to my children. The answer Paul gives as the honest one is exactly what I would say: “you have lousy judgement. People with twice your experience still get burned by them”. Of course, as my older daughter is just five, these are not issues yet!

I do not thing discouraging kids from using obscenities and profanities is lying: provided you hold yourself to the same standard. I do not pretend to be perfect, but I do not have double standards either — they are an ugly habit, and we would all be better without it. I no longer use the offensive words, and Lucy feels quite able to correct me if she here the occasional milder one (usually a damn of a bloody).

We do not conceal the reality of death at all. We have whisked away the bodies of dead goldfish before Lucy saw them, but we have told her that they died. More importantly, she was present when my mother’s ashes were scattered at sea. She has asked if we will die and been honestly answered that everyone does but on one of us is likely to die for a long time.

I think that conflating religion with identity is accepting dishonesty. Like anything else that makes factual claims, what matters is whether they are true of not. Of course, my children are being brought up as Christians insofar as they have been christened, go to church (simple because we both go and there is no one else to look after them), and are exposed to christian ideas. On the other hand, they know that I used to be an agnostic, that my wife used to be a Buddhist, and that there is no agreement about the facts. I will certainly teach them to be intellectually honest.

I know from my own experience that identity cannot simply be imposed, so I am not even tempted to try. Neither do I feel any need to be dishonest to protect my authority. Why should you try to conceal your flaws — your children are going to notice most of them anyway.

As for schools and education, I suspect that my experience is better than what Paul Graham’s. I can certainly remember no distortions as blatant as those he describes. I can recall a lack of questioning and criticism of the way things were in geography (with regard to over-production in agriculture, for example), and that is about it. Like me, my children will gain a more rounded view by living in different countries.

I would take the cure a stage earlier than PG (as he is often referred to). We should bring children up with an awareness of the difficulty of achieving a truly neutral point of view: they should be taught to question from the start.

Comments (2)


Comment by Richard Beddard at 2:45 pm on 14 May 2008 at

I told my kids that when you hear music coming from an ice cream van it means he’s run out of ice cream.

It’s saved us so much trouble over the years :-)

And when they find out the truth, they really will have learned they should question everything!

Comment by Freedom for teenagers at 6:57 pm on 16 May 2008 at

[…] In an interview with Psychology Today, Robert Epstein discusses his view that adolescents are harmed by being restricted and infantilised. This strengthens some of my views about schools and over-protective parenting, which I mentioned in my post on the lies we tell children. […]

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