Just as the child’s first ‘No’ is a developmental milestone, or his ability to play hide and seek without announcing his whereabouts, so the capacity to lie is a momentous cultural achievement, the significance of which is frequently underestimated in family life.
It is a great leap forward when children realise that their parents cannot read their minds and they can carry off a lie successfully. The tendency to lie to parents seems to reach its zenith in adolescence, which parents themselves find hurtful, frustrating and annoying. “Are you lying to me?” is a phrase resonant both with suppressed menace and emotional hurt.
Recently I discovered that my fifteen year old daughter, who was showing an unaccustomed interest in the television news, had in fact been making the news herself on that particular day. She had skipped school in order to picket the offices of a bank which had been investing in a firm conducting animal experiments. The action resulted in a number of arrests and injuries.
Despite the usual parental concerns about such a venture I was secretly pleased that someone who had hitherto shown an almost limitless capacity for apathy, and whose make-up regime would try the patience of the most patient co-conspirator, had actually managed to get to the bank before it closed for the day. Then of course there is the question of the poor little bunny rabbits.
But the initial lie still rankled, and it was one of a long list of lies told to escape parental criticism and authority.
Some psychoanalysts think that persistant lying is a ‘bad thing’. Lies damage our capacity to think truthfully; they damage trust; they cut us off from other people. Lying is stressful because we worry about being caught out; it can make us touchy and over-sensitive, unable to communicate openly. Despite the sense of triumph when we ‘get away with it’, we feel false and phoney.
In extreme cases it can distort our capacity to recognise reality, we might even worry that we are going mad. Lying creates a disharmony between our secret inner world and the outer world of other people. So there is an implicit morality in psychoanalysis that truth is better than lies and that reality is better than illusion. Few would argue with the proposition that teaching children to tell the truth is one of the essential tasks of parenting.
Freud was also concerned about lying. But in his case he was more concerned about the lies parents tell their children.
Freud argues that the first deceptions of children occur around the problems of sexuality – or rather around ‘the first grand problem of life’: ‘Where do babies come from?’. In Freud’s day, children were fobbed off with the pronouncement that ‘The Stork brought it’, an explanation that satisfied the parents, not the children, and was supposed to silence further questioning.
“It seems to me to follow from a great deal of information I have received” said Freud portentously, “that children refuse to believe the Stork Theory and that from the time of this first deception and rebuff they nourish a distrust of adults and have a suspicion of there being something forbidden which is being withheld from them by the ‘grown-ups’.”
It might seem to us that suspicion of grown-ups and authority is no bad thing. Lack of trust in political leaders is now endemic. However the simultaneous dependence of children on their parents, and the wish to please them, can lead to a more doubtful prognosis. Freud continues:
“With this, however, the child also experiences the first occasion for a ‘psychical conflict’, in that views for which he feels an instinctual kind of preference, but which are not ‘right’ in the eyes of the grown-ups, come into opposition with other views, which are supported by the authority of the grown-ups without being acceptable to him himself. Such a psychical conflict may soon turn into a ‘psychical dissociation’. The set of views which are bound up with being ‘good’ become the dominant and conscious views; while the other set become the suppressed and ‘unconscious’ ones. The nuclear complex of a neurosis is in this way brought into being” (SE9, p214)
In a beautifully resonant and evocative poem, ‘Between the Lines’, Carole Satyamurti describes the confusion and fears of a child growing up in a world of parental lies and linguistic taboos, and the struggle to create a personal space for one’s own thoughts.
Between the lines
Words were dust-sheets, blinds.
People dying randomly, ‘for want of breath’
shadowed my bed-times.
Babies happened; adults
buried questions under bushes.
Nouns would have been too robust
for body-parts; they were
curt, homeless prepositions – ‘inside’,
‘down there’, ‘behind’, ‘below’.
No word for what went on in darkness, overheard.
Underground, straining for language
that would let me out, I pressed to the radio,
read forbidden books. And once
visited Mr Cole. His seventeen
budgerigars praised God continually.
He loves all words, he said, though he used
few to force a kiss. All that summer
I longed to ask my mother, starved myself,
prayed, imagined skirts were getting tight,
hoped jumping down ten stairs would put it right.
My parents fought in other rooms,
their tight-lipped murmuring muffled
by flock wallpaper.
What was wrong, what they had to say
couldn’t be shared with me.
He crossed the threashold in a wordless
slam of doors. ‘Gone to live near work’
my mother said, before she tracked down
my diary, broke the lock, made me cut out
pages that guessed what silence was about.
Schools discussion topic
General discussion about lying and intergenerational communication.
For more about lying and psychoanalysis see John Forrester’s brilliant essay ‘Lying on the Couch’ in his book Truth Games (Harvard University Press 1997).
See also Sigmund Freud, ‘Two lies told by children’ (1913), in Volume 12 of the Standard Edition of Freud’s Work.