Occasionally I get to tend my one-year-old great-granddaughter, and her methods of navigating the adventure of her life are both a treat to watch and a window into the workings of a developing mind.
As with most babies, she’s intensely assertive and fully cognizant of meaning. In interactions with me she respects boundaries that are defined clearly with kindness. For example, she now ignores the exciting tangle of cords connecting telephone, internet, computer and such, after a calm explanation about their danger to her (“Playing with those things can hurt you. They carry a sharp shock that would make you cry and cry and cry, so let’s not do that.”). She’s cooperative; if I ask politely what’s in her mouth, she’ll take it out to show me, and I always offer a thank you.
However, when I took away a fragile item without either asking nicely or offering a replacement object, she reacted with equal disrespect, screaming and pinching my arm.
No grudge holder, she’s always willing to be amused and laughs at peek-a-boo, funny faces, and knocking over stacked blocks. Childish joy is infectious, and I cherish it. But joy’s not always shared; a friend tells about this angry shout: “Why are you always laughing?” which led her 5-year-old self to decide maybe she’d better not. It was a bitter, jealous cry from an angry adult, but with a dim understanding of such a concept, a child can easily fall into self-doubt, blame and criticism, which traits can continue right into adulthood.
Do you remember your childhood, when your feelings were tender, deep, and all-consuming? When things were hugely wonderful or devastatingly dreadful? With no frame of reference or words to describe acts of malice, personality disorder, or emotional confusion we might encounter, we may adopt peculiar ideas about normal behavior.
Children are egocentric and take things personally. They judge behavior with a rigid sense of right and wrong, a dichotomy of absolutes. A missed outing is not a scheduling glitch but an intentional lie. The Santa Claus myth may be the first big whopper, when kids become wary about what they say and to whom. Who can be trusted? Older children may come to reserve real communication for their peers, with whom they share common ground and a similar sense of reality.
The pain of perceived and genuine falsehoods accumulates as we inevitably begin to experience real and perceived cruelty in all its unique forms. As the well-known lyric puts it, “Your children’s hell will slowly pass by.” Eventually, I believe, kids come to realize that the society they inhabit has a layer of casual dishonesty and deception. As a grandson once commented, “Grandma, everyone lies.”
We all get snared in this sticky web; since we mirror behavior, we slowly absorb this subterranean staple of our culture. We learn to calculate the value of a lie against the truth, trying to defend ourselves against the uncertainty of events.
I clearly remember my first lie. I was in bed and thinking about death. Sometime death would be happening to me. It could be NOW! and I was suddenly terrified. Getting out of bed, I went to my mother in the living room, sat down on the hassock and began, “Mother, I don’t want ...” Instead of saying “to die,” I finished with “you to die,” so as not to seem selfish and self-centered.
This first lie hinged on acceptance issues, but I think that it actually swelled self-doubt. I had, after all, decided to become a liar.
Susan Stornetta is a retired archaeologist and a long-time Comstock resident.