Monday, June 30, 2008

Why do we lie to our children?


Story telling and its original purpose

Mum said ‘When did your parents tell you that? Were you at a young age, were you putting things into your ears?’

Albert had just retold a story about a relative finding a bead inside of his ear, after suffering weeks of pain.

My mother’s obvious conclusion was that Albert’s parents were trying to teach Albert a lesson about not putting things into his ears. In other words, she thought that his parents told Albert an untrue story that would help him to live a life free of ear pain induced by putting random objects into his ear.

Today, we don’t really tell our children these kind of stories. We are more likely to tell them ‘facts’, like eating too many sweets will produce plaque and thus more visits to the dentist and subsequently more pain.

It doesn’t seem to be having much impact on their sweet intake, but it makes us feel like we are not lying to our children, that we are being informative and educational, not like our superstitious parents forcing us not to walk under ladders and something about throwing salt over the left shoulder.

But what was the original meaning behind the stories we once told?

I was recently traveling around outback Australia, and I came across informative centers where I read many stories where animals spoke and lessons were learnt about how to take care of the land, and how to share water and the consequences of not heeding the lesson of the stories.

Some Australian Indigenous groups are amongst the oldest surviving nomadic peoples in the world. They had a relatively untouched (by outside influences) culture until only 200 years ago, perhaps leading us to a broader understanding of how societies emerged and evolved over time.

I saw on the TV an indigenous program where an older male was repeating stories to a child (of about 2 years old) about someone needing help, and the elder repeated ‘give away your things’, while simultaneously wiping the child’s palm away from the body.

I don’t have a lot of research about this topic, but even if we look back to our own childhoods, some of the stories had a moral purpose, like ‘The boy who cried wolf’ and 'King Midas'. They were not true stories, they are what we term fables or fairytales, and they were told with the preposition that what we tell children should help equip them for an adult life where one’s behavior will have consequences – don’t tell lies or people won’t believe you anymore. If you only chase after gold, in the end you’ll end up only with material goods and nothing else.

Today we don’t have a lot of time for stories. Today we tell facts. We tell facts about tooth decay and eating to much will make you fat and if you don’t study you won’t get a good job and we dress our children in designer wear so that they’ll fit in to a social group and we indulge there need for brand sneakers (because we understand) and we leave them in front of the television for the stories we used to tell.

Imagine. Sitting around a fireside, listening to the deep voice of your grandfather while you are gently held by your older sister, or your mother. You hear a story about helping each other in times of need. The story has drama and passion and everyone’s face is lit up with the light of the flames from the centre of your family and friends.

Imagine. Sitting around a television, listening to canned laughter and the nasal intonation of a smart mouthed teenager girl dressed in the best designer jeans you’ve seen. You’re alone because everyone else is watching their own TV in their own room. You hear a story about a boyfriend sleeping with a best friend and how a gun man terrorized a school in a state in North America you didn’t know existed and still can’t remember what state it was. The story has drama and a certain irony because you knew that the boy wasn’t to be trusted and the gunman was probably being ignored at a girl at his school and there is no one beside you on the lounge.

The television is telling the moral stories our children are listening to.

How many times have you though ‘I wonder where he/she gets that from?’

You know where. The TV is teaching our children the values of our society.

Its teaching the glory of the United States of America. The glory of the mighty dollar. That status is in brand names. That self value is dictated by how pretty, thin, and rich you are. Its teaching the value of short term pleasure over long term happiness.

We used to lie to our children to encourage them to be safe, to help them in social interaction, to enhance their wellbeing.

We lie to our children now that we don’t have time for them. But we have 30 minutes to browse on the internet. We have 30 minutes to indulge in our favorite magazine. We have 30 minutes for our selves. Then we let the TV do the rest of the talking.

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