Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Clean Up is Fun! or Lies We Tell Our Kids

Last week my 16 m/o daughter was sick and cranky so I let her watch Yo Gabba Gabba. In spite of being profoundly irritating to adults, that show works wonders on even the most listless and cranky toddler. So she was into it, and fascinated by the characters, loving their dances etc. But toward the end of the show the characters have a snack, and this results in a big mess. So they decide it's cleanup time. One character is reluctant to clean up at first, but her friends helps her, and they sing a song which basically repeats how much fun it is to clean up over and over again. It's like the toddler version of whatever music they were pumping into the heads of 1950s housewives. My daughter is still a bit young to care about the lyrics of a song and is much more concerned with the danceability, so she loved the song. But it made me stop and think about the prevalence of messages like this in children's books and TV programming.

I would bet that it doesn't take long for kids to develop a decent bullshit detector which will allow them to filter out these kinds of messages. But what impact does that have on their view of and relationship with adults? I don't want to tell my kids anything that will make them distrust me or think I view them as not smart enough to be able to handle an honest conversation. If it was me, I'd write a song with a more subtle message about how sometimes it sucks to clean up, although we can do things to try to make it more fun, but bottom line it's just something we have to do sometimes and it makes our environment more livable in the end, so it turns out to be worth it. You can see why I'm not in the business of writing kids' songs. The thing is, the world isn't as simple as "we need to do x, so let's lie to ourselves about x being fun!" Many experiences kids have and questions they ask do require a nuanced and subtle, yet age-appropriate, response. This requires work, and real engagement with your kids. But I would bet it pays off big time in the long-run.

So, as is my wont, I kept thinking about this all week, while I didn't have time to post it here. And, as is likely to happen, my thoughts on the topic branched out and I began looking for a general pattern. And I began to wonder if something like abstinence-only sex ed is really a symptom of this feature of our culture. The fact that we routinely and easily lie to kids makes it easier to justify the misinformation that's fed to them in abstinence-only sex ed. It's for their own good, right?

But can you think of any instance where lying to a kid really turns out to be for their own good? I can't. Among my acquaintances who were adopted, for instance, those who knew about it for as long as they remember had an easier time than those who were shielded from the truth, only to have it sprung on them at a later date. And lies we tell children about death almost always backfire in the end. At some point, they're going to figure out that Aunt Vy isn't on an extended holiday and Spot did not go to a nice farm out in the country. And when they do, how can they not feel a bit betrayed by the lie? Beyond that, it seems deeply inauthentic to expect nothing less than the full and unaltered truth from your kids while giving yourself permission to lie to them. It (perhaps unintentionally) sends a clear message of a difference in relative worth, and makes reciprocal respect between parent and child impossible.
Your thoughts?


  1. Anonymous3/24/2009

    Well, I think I'm glad I believed in Santa Clause. But seriously, I would be more concerned that I would tell my kids too much too soon. I guess this is what abstinance-only people are scared of but I think I might actually tell kids too much too soon because I think I sometimes talk to kids like they are adults (mainly because I think they can understand a lot more than we give them credit for but to what extent?). I can't imagine lying to kids the way some people do. How much of the truth do you tell kids though? It's a good question.

  2. My parents lied to me about where babies came from. I'm an only child, and by the age of two or three, was desperate for siblings. I asked my mom how people made babies. She told me that you just had to say "I want a baby," and then you could have one. I made her say it. Unsurprisingly, the baby never came into existence.

    I don't remember questioning my mom's explanation as a child, nor do I remember questioning why the baby brother or sister I wanted never showed up. Eventually, I started pre-school, made new friends, and forgot all about my request.

    I think lying to kids is necessary on occasion, and when it's about small stuff (ie. cleaning being fun) or major things that toddlers aren't ready to know the full truth about just yet (ie. reproduction), it's not a huge issue. Lying about significant issues in a child's life, however (ie. whether or not they're adopted, whether their pet died or went to a farm far away), is problematic - and I'm thankful that it's something my parents never did.

  3. I don't often lie to my children, but it is fun to do. For example: "What are we having for lunch?" "Bugs." "You're tricking me." "No I am not - lovely fresh juicy bugs. Let's go into the garden and collect them." "Socrates, stop teasing the children."
    I see it as a way of instilling a need to think critically and think for themselves, with the added bonus of teaching them to be sceptical of authority.
    As for the issue of lying being okay for you and not for your kids... well you are not equals. Just like it is okay for mummy and daddy to stay up late, but not for junior.
    However, I take the point that there is a difference between lying about existence of Santa and the Easter bunny, the taste of vegetables and the funness of tidying up, compared with being adopted and conception.
    When I think about it, it is probably due to the age of the child - toddlers vs teenagers. My kids are toddlers, so the joy of explaining contraception is still in the future.

  4. But I would characterize telling the kids we're eating bugs for lunch as teasing, not lying. And I tease my kids all the time too. But in that case part of the game is them figuring that out from my body language and tone, which seem to be valuable life skills (using non-verbal cues to aid in interpretation...). So I think there's a difference there.

    As to lying about small things as compared to bigger ones... I think there are probably ways around explaining something to them that they're not ready for without lying. I mean, you can give a very, very vague description of reproduction that suited to their capacity to understand or tell them you'll talk about it more when they get older. But I'm sort of on the fence about Santa Claus.

  5. Lizzay3/25/2009

    I even feel a bit uncomfortable with the Santa Claus thing.

  6. My mom always made a big show of discussing the spirit of Xmas (giving, family, love) and how Santa was the embodiment of that. When it came time for me (about 10 or so) to ask about the reality of an actual old guy coming into our house with presents, she acquiesced on his physical being, but fell back on how Santa does exist in spirit, and is always around us at Xmas. This is something she has honored and stuck to as I've grown up. Not only did this aspect make the transition from believer to non believer easier for me, but it also never made me feel like my parents were liars, or had betrayed me in some way. Plus, it's a good way to instill the "true" meaning of the season at an early age, and ensure it will stick with 'em throughout their adult lives.

    Also, I agree that abstinence education comes out of this fear of telling children realistic things, as if they couldn't handle it. I have this problem in my past/current job(s) trying to educate younger groups on healthy relationships/interpersonal violence. Teachers/Parents/Admins don't want kids hearing about scary upsetting things, but then they get older and have no idea how to handle these realities when they confront them in college/high school (etc).

    Rachel, I love your blog! I always appreciate your comments on Feministing, as they are consistently one of few that are thoughtful, introspective, and willing to look at various sides to the issue at hand w/o getting uncontrollably upset, thus lacking the ability to make a cohesive argument.

    Thanks for all you share in that community and here in your own space!

  7. Thanks Lucé!

    And I like the way your mom handled the Santa Claus issue. My partner and I talk about this stuff all the time, since he's inclined to tell the kids that there's no God, that the stories about Jesus are mythology, etc, but doesn't have a problem with Santa. I want to tell the kids about what various people believe about God when they're old enough and then let them make up their own minds.

    So far my stepdaughter (5) seems to believe in Santa, but not because we've explicitly told her he exists. We do say things like "Santa came last night," but given the fact that she goes Christmas shopping with us and helps us wrap gifts, I think she's kind of on to it. And if she asks me directly I'll tell her something like what your mom said. Her mom does a little more of the Santa stuff at her house (leaving out cookies, etc) but doesn't push it either, so I think we're all OK with being honest with her when she starts asking.

  8. Anonymous12/11/2009

    You people are weirdos. Heeehoooohaaaheehaooahee

  9. I really appreciate your perspective, here. I tend to agree, I think we need to give our children some credit for having intelligence and give them the respect of being honest. I don't mean we should burden them with knowledge that's beyond them, but the truth can certainly be served out in bite-sized pieces...and it SHOULD be.

    If my daughter complains that she hates putting her clothes away, I'm not going to be all like, "But it's fun!" No way. I'm going to say, yeah, I know babe, but at least this way you will know exactly where your favorite pants are."

    Abstinence only sex education would be really nice if it actually worked. It doesn't any more than "drugs are bad" because all things are not created equal, kids are not stupid and people want to have a good time. I'd rather tell my children the truth and teach them self-respect and model wise choices than lie to them.