Lies we tell kids

May 2008

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.

Imagine if you tried to keep someone in as protected an environment as a newborn till age 18. To mislead someone so grossly about the world would seem not protection but abuse. That's an extreme example, of course; when parents do that sort of thing it becomes national news. But you see the same problem on a smaller scale in the malaise teenagers feel in suburbia.

The main purpose of suburbia is to provide a protected environment for children to grow up in. And it seems great for 10 year olds. I liked living in suburbia when I was 10. I didn't notice how sterile it was. My whole world was no bigger than a few friends' houses I bicycled to and some woods I ran around in. On a log scale I was midway between crib and globe.