Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Tue 20th May, 2008

The conspiracy to keep children quiet

Thanks to Steven Hanley, I read Paul Graham's essay "Lies We Tell Kids". His basic point is that adults often don't tell children the strict truth - either by omission or by fabrication - because some questions are hard ("Is there a God?") or destroy the innocence of childhood ("What is a prostitute?"). To my mind his essay parallels Ian Stewart, Jack Cohen and Terry Pratchett's observations in the "The Science Of Discworld" series that we simplify complex stories by abstracting or leaving out details - "telling lies" by omission.

I'm lucky enough to have four nieces; since Kate and I have decided not to have children we have focussed our "raising the next generation" on these four (although I tend to be catholic, if not necessarily orthodox, in playing with any children). They are all reasonably well-adjusted, normal girls in my opinion and I think that, to varying degrees, their parents have tried to be fairly honest with them. On the Tuesday before the Armstrong family went away for a six week trip around the world, they had their family dog put down because of its extreme ill health and the likelihood that it would die while they were away. This was done by a vet in their back yard with the family and their cousins watching and supporting them through that terrible time, so Paul Graham's section on how we lie to children about death particularly resonated with me. These girls haven't suddenly become morbid, or afraid of death, or casual about it, because of that experience - they're still quite normal even after we've exposed them to something that other parents would go to great efforts to hide.

The girls know me as somewhat eccentric, partly because I play running and card games with them, partly for my collection of evil laughs, and partly because I'll bore their ears off with science and technology if they let me. I send them coded messages and make special hiding places around the house for when we play hide-and-seek. I'll tell them when I don't know something, or when I'm glossing over details in an explanation in order to make it twenty words rather than a hundred. I do think that a fair bit of my behaviour is related to keeping them behaving as children - or rather as young adults - rather than making them conform to one or the other but not both at the same time. To me, spending ten minutes talking to one of the girls when she's in trouble with her parents and explaining that I understand why she did the things she did - even though they were wrong - is far more valuable to her than being left with a sense of injustice that "you just can't win against your parents" and "no-one understands my side of the story".

Paul Graham talks at the end of his article about a sort of 'truth debt' built up by all the elisions, fabrications and contradictions the adults have told around children as they reach adulthood. "There's never a point where the adults sit you down and explain all the lies they told you," he observes. My way of dealing with this is to start early, be honest about the things you can be, and tell them when you're not being honest about the things you can't be. I hate telling lies, especially when I know that sooner or later I'm going to have to tell the truth later and then explain why I told the lie. Sure, I don't intend to freak kids out by telling them things that shatter their illusions of how the world works too quickly, but neither do I intend to shore up that illusion with even more outlandish fabrications.

I do hope that this little essay doesn't warn too many parents off from allowing me to talk to their children :-)

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