Friday, March 11, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Chapter VIII

Chapter VIII (pages 157-165), “Truthfulness”

Truthfulness, both inward and outward, is of prime importance, with the inward variety, an aversion to self-deceit, paramount. Appropriate behavior sometimes (though rarely) requires an outward lie, and trying to disguise that fact itself leads to self-deceit. Harmful uses of power are the occasions most likely to merit untruthful responses.

Children typically lie out of fear, so a fearless child will not develop a habit of lying. They can learn to lie through adult example, or by seeing that truths told to adults can be dangerous. Small children can tell unintentional untruths through their faulty memory and misunderstanding of time, and their confusion of fantasy and reality. “When a child does lie [intentionally], parents should take themselves to task rather than him; they should deal with it by removing its causes, and by explaining gently and reasonably why it is better not to lie [p. 160].” If your child sees that you lie, your moral authority is instantly undermined. It is desirable not to assume an air of infallibility with children, who will see through it.

One way parents lie to children – to the detriment of the children – is to threaten punishments without intending to follow through on them. Don’t be insistent except when necessary, but when necessary, insist, knowing that it is likely you will have to follow through with the threatened punishment. Children quickly learn that your threats are credible, and then you won’t be called upon to follow through.

“Lies about sex are sanctioned by time-honoured usage [p. 163].” Russell is opposed to such lies, but will deal with them in a later chapter.

Answer truthfully the innumerable questions children ask, even about sensitive topics like religion and death. Err on the side of telling them more than they can understand rather than less – in this manner, their curiosity will be aroused, they will seek to learn more. Your unswerving devotion to truthful answers will be rewarded with the child’s trust.

Since the world is addicted to humbug, an insistence upon truth will lead a child to hold in contempt what generally are considered to be respectable things. Truth does not smooth one’s progress through a fallen world; rather, it can be personally and financially costly. But better to live (and even fail) with self-respect and candor than to “succeed by the arts of the slave [p. 165].”