Econstudentlog

Lies we tell kids

Another one of Paul Graham’s essays, you can read it here. I’ll quote extensively from it below.

“Adults lie constantly to kids. I’m not saying we should stop, but I think we should at least examine which lies we tell and why.

There may also be a benefit to us. We were all lied to as kids, and some of the lies we were told still affect us. So by studying the ways adults lie to kids, we may be able to clear our heads of lies we were told.

I’m using the word “lie” in a very general sense: not just overt falsehoods, but also all the more subtle ways we mislead kids. Though “lie” has negative connotations, I don’t mean to suggest we should never do this—just that we should pay attention when we do. [1]

One of the most remarkable things about the way we lie to kids is how broad the conspiracy is. All adults know what their culture lies to kids about: they’re the questions you answer “Ask your parents.” If a kid asked who won the World Series in 1982 or what the atomic weight of carbon was, you could just tell him. But if a kid asks you “Is there a God?” or “What’s a prostitute?” you’ll probably say “Ask your parents.”

Since we all agree, kids see few cracks in the view of the world presented to them. The biggest disagreements are between parents and schools, but even those are small. Schools are careful what they say about controversial topics, and if they do contradict what parents want their kids to believe, parents either pressure the school into keeping quiet or move their kids to a new school.

The conspiracy is so thorough that most kids who discover it do so only by discovering internal contradictions in what they’re told. It can be traumatic for the ones who wake up during the operation. Here’s what happened to Einstein:

Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies: it was a crushing impression.[2]

I remember that feeling. By 15 I was convinced the world was corrupt from end to end. That’s why movies like The Matrix have such resonance. Every kid grows up in a fake world. In a way it would be easier if the forces behind it were as clearly differentiated as a bunch of evil machines, and one could make a clean break just by taking a pill.

Protection

If you ask adults why they lie to kids, the most common reason they give is to protect them. And kids do need protecting. The environment you want to create for a newborn child will be quite unlike the streets of a big city.

That seems so obvious it seems wrong to call it a lie. It’s certainly not a bad lie to tell, to give a baby the impression the world is quiet and warm and safe. But this harmless type of lie can turn sour if left unexamined. […]

A lot of the things adults conceal from smaller children, they conceal because they’d be frightening, not because they want to conceal the existence of such things. Misleading the child is just a byproduct.

This seems one of the most justifiable types of lying adults do to kids. But because the lies are indirect we don’t keep a very strict accounting of them. Parents know they’ve concealed the facts about sex, and many at some point sit their kids down and explain more. But few tell their kids about the differences between the real world and the cocoon they grew up in. Combine this with the confidence parents try to instill in their kids, and every year you get a new crop of 18 year olds who think they know how to run the world. […]

Another reason parents don’t want their kids having sex is that they want to keep them innocent. Adults have a certain model of how kids are supposed to behave, and it’s different from what they expect of other adults. […]
One reason we want kids to be innocent is that we’re programmed to like certain kinds of helplessness. I’ve several times heard mothers say they deliberately refrained from correcting their young children’s mispronunciations because they were so cute. And if you think about it, cuteness is helplessness. Toys and cartoon characters meant to be cute always have clueless expressions and stubby, ineffectual limbs.

It’s not surprising we’d have an inborn desire to love and protect helpless creatures, considering human offspring are so helpless for so long. Without the helplessness that makes kids cute, they’d be very annoying. They’d merely seem like incompetent adults. […]

Innocence is also open-mindedness. We want kids to be innocent so they can continue to learn. Paradoxical as it sounds, there are some kinds of knowledge that get in the way of other kinds of knowledge. If you’re going to learn that the world is a brutal place full of people trying to take advantage of one another, you’re better off learning it last. Otherwise you won’t bother learning much more. […]

After sex, death is the topic adults lie most conspicuously about to kids. Sex I believe they conceal because of deep taboos. But why do we conceal death from kids? Probably because small children are particularly horrified by it. They want to feel safe, and death is the ultimate threat. […]

Along with such outright lies, there must have been a lot of changing the subject when death came up. I can’t remember that, of course, but I can infer it from the fact that I didn’t really grasp I was going to die till I was about 19. How could I have missed something so obvious for so long? Now that I’ve seen parents managing the subject, I can see how: questions about death are gently but firmly turned aside.

On this topic, especially, they’re met half-way by kids. Kids often want to be lied to. They want to believe they’re living in a comfortable, safe world as much as their parents want them to believe it. [4] […]

Telling a child they have a particular ethnic or religious identity is one of the stickiest things you can tell them. Almost anything else you tell a kid, they can change their mind about later when they start to think for themselves. But if you tell a kid they’re a member of a certain group, that seems nearly impossible to shake.

This despite the fact that it can be one of the most premeditated lies parents tell. When parents are of different religions, they’ll often agree between themselves that their children will be “raised as Xes.” And it works. The kids obligingly grow up considering themselves as Xes, despite the fact that if their parents had chosen the other way, they’d have grown up considering themselves as Ys.

One reason this works so well is the second kind of lie involved. The truth is common property. You can’t distinguish your group by doing things that are rational, and believing things that are true. If you want to set yourself apart from other people, you have to do things that are arbitrary, and believe things that are false. And after having spent their whole lives doing things that are arbitrary and believing things that are false, and being regarded as odd by “outsiders” on that account, the cognitive dissonance pushing children to regard themselves as Xes must be enormous. If they aren’t an X, why are they attached to all these arbitrary beliefs and customs? If they aren’t an X, why do all the non-Xes call them one?

This form of lie is not without its uses. You can use it to carry a payload of beneficial beliefs, and they will also become part of the child’s identity. You can tell the child that in addition to never wearing the color yellow, believing the world was created by a giant rabbit, and always snapping their fingers before eating fish, Xes are also particularly honest and industrious. Then X children will grow up feeling it’s part of their identity to be honest and industrious.

This probably accounts for a lot of the spread of modern religions, and explains why their doctrines are a combination of the useful and the bizarre. The bizarre half is what makes the religion stick, and the useful half is the payload. [6]

Authority

One of the least excusable reasons adults lie to kids is to maintain power over them. Sometimes these lies are truly sinister, like a child molester telling his victims they’ll get in trouble if they tell anyone what happened to them. Others seem more innocent; it depends how badly adults lie to maintain their power, and what they use it for.

Most adults make some effort to conceal their flaws from children. […]

But because adults conceal their flaws, and at the same time insist on high standards of behavior for kids, a lot of kids grow up feeling they fall hopelessly short. They walk around feeling horribly evil for having used a swearword, while in fact most of the adults around them are doing much worse things.

This happens in intellectual as well as moral questions. The more confident people are, the more willing they seem to be to answer a question “I don’t know.” Less confident people feel they have to have an answer or they’ll look bad. My parents were pretty good about admitting when they didn’t know things, but I must have been told a lot of lies of this type by teachers, because I rarely heard a teacher say “I don’t know” till I got to college. I remember because it was so surprising to hear someone say that in front of a class. […]

Peace

Of all the reasons we lie to kids, the most powerful is probably the same mundane reason they lie to us.

Often when we lie to people it’s not part of any conscious strategy, but because they’d react violently to the truth. Kids, almost by definition, lack self-control. They react violently to things—and so they get lied to a lot. [9]

A few Thanksgivings ago, a friend of mine found himself in a situation that perfectly illustrates the complex motives we have when we lie to kids. As the roast turkey appeared on the table, his alarmingly perceptive 5 year old son suddenly asked if the turkey had wanted to die. Foreseeing disaster, my friend and his wife rapidly improvised: yes, the turkey had wanted to die, and in fact had lived its whole life with the aim of being their Thanksgiving dinner. And that (phew) was the end of that.

Whenever we lie to kids to protect them, we’re usually also lying to keep the peace.

One consequence of this sort of calming lie is that we grow up thinking horrible things are normal. It’s hard for us to feel a sense of urgency as adults over something we’ve literally been trained not to worry about. When I was about 10 I saw a documentary on pollution that put me into a panic. It seemed the planet was being irretrievably ruined. I went to my mother afterward to ask if this was so. I don’t remember what she said, but she made me feel better, so I stopped worrying about it.

That was probably the best way to handle a frightened 10 year old. But we should understand the price. This sort of lie is one of the main reasons bad things persist: we’re all trained to ignore them. […]

We arrive at adulthood with a kind of truth debt. We were told a lot of lies to get us (and our parents) through our childhood. Some may have been necessary. Some probably weren’t. But we all arrive at adulthood with heads full of lies.

There’s never a point where the adults sit you down and explain all the lies they told you. They’ve forgotten most of them. So if you’re going to clear these lies out of your head, you’re going to have to do it yourself.

Few do. Most people go through life with bits of packing material adhering to their minds and never know it. You probably never can completely undo the effects of lies you were told as a kid, but it’s worth trying. I’ve found that whenever I’ve been able to undo a lie I was told, a lot of other things fell into place.”

So, a few remarks here. First, when I realized that Santa Claus was not real, I like to think (our memories can deceive us, but this is the narrative my persona has chosen) that it had a huge impact on my world view. That was the first time I truly realized that my parents were actively lying to me about stuff, that they didn’t always tell me the truth; that they’d lie even about important stuff like whether Santa Claus existed. I like to think it made me smarter, more skeptic, less innocent – and it made me a little less trusting. I figured out that grownups have selfish reasons for lying to me/’us’, because of the link between presents from Santa and the way you behaved. And lots of people (grownups) could be in on a lie (no grown-up in the extended family had ever openly questioned Santa’s existence in my presence), so it was hard to know whom to trust. I didn’t figure out the truth completely on my own; my older brother let it slip at one point, but it still took me a while to process that information. That teachers aren’t always telling/knowing the truth I knew long before Paul Graham did, because my parents never did much to hide that fact – I assume I had a few of those ‘but the teacher said…’ ‘the teacher is wrong’-experiences along the way. Lastly, when I realized Santa wasn’t real it made me take a big step towards atheism, because this realization made it much harder for me to come up with plausible reasons why ‘God’ should be real, because God and Santa were sorta-kinda alike; they both monitored you while you were awake and they judged your thoughts and actions, even though you couldn’t see them…

The Santa story above I bring up because this is one aspect of lying to kids that Paul Graham does not mention: Maybe adults can sometimes tell children the truth more efficiently by lying to them than by just simply telling them the truth. If you tell a kid that other people often lie to them, they’ll process that information in a very different way from how they’d process the actual experience of being deliberately lied to and and then figuring out on their own that you were lying to them (the lie should be sufficiently transparent for them to eventually be able to figure out the truth; this kind of lie will only work if there is some plausible way for the kid to realize that the lie is actually a lie). Being lied to by someone you trust and then figuring out that they lied to you is a very different process from just being told that ‘people lie/I lie to you sometimes…’; a more complex process with added uncertainty, doubts, questioning worldview/authority ect. The latter process is much more efficient to bring the point across. It arguably works for grownups too; going through such a process can sometimes be considered a kind of rite of passage for grownups. Of course when arguing this point it’s worth remembering, as alluded to earlier, that some kinds of lies are undoubtedly better suited for this purpose than others.

Yes, in case you were in doubt i have actually considered deliberately lying to an at this point highly theoretical potential future child of mine about Santa, for some of these reasons. Most people are irrational and cling to stupid beliefs. If you’ve never held any stupid, irrational beliefs that you invested significantly in yourself at some point, only to later realize that you’d been dead wrong all along, I would assume that it would be exceedingly difficult to understand how most people actually ‘work’. And being forced to realize that you had been very wrong about something you felt somewhat strongly about would give you at least two valuable lessons. 1. Being able to admit that you were wrong. 2. You would get a big step closer to the answer to the question: How does it feel like being wrong about something? (Answer: It feels like being right. A brilliant way of putting it, thanks Gwern!)

March 26, 2012 - Posted by | Psychology, random stuff

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