To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child , a garden patch, or a redeemed condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Monday, February 21, 2011

Children and truth

Was reading a novel, set in Ireland, about a drug addict, Tony, and his struggle to regain his footing in life.  One of the main characters is his wife Allie (Alisha) who attempts to bring the hubby onto the right path, while taking care of her two sons, one pre-teen and one a toddler.  There is one scene where Allie returns home devastated, having just learnt that Tony, who was off drugs for a few months after rehab, has taken a 'slip' again, after having left home in a huff having quarrelled with her on learning that it was she who had got him thrown out of his job when she first learnt he was an addict (to keep him off money...  a long story).

Once she's home, she starts thanking the old neighbour who's been babysitting her sons (assisted by his own son, a comic TV artist) for a few hours.  But then she's told by the old man (goaded by his son into the 'confession') that he has been pretending to be Santa Claus to her elder son, who's been writing him letters asking for help on all sorts of things (some of which he helps the child with).  This provokes her to full fury - 'How dare he do this to my son' - and she screams at him "Get out...".  She forgets all the favours the old man has been doing for her family (besides babysitting) - protecting her son from local bullies, getting him a car ride with his famous son, etc.  She also goes on to dutifully check, discreetly, whether the old man 'had interfered' with her son (thankfully, not)!

Got me thinking.  Is the commitment to absolute truth really so high in the Western World?  Not being judgmental, but if something like this had happened with one of us, we would probably have brushed it off as an innocuous incident, at most with the remark that at least it gave the child a few days of innocent happiness.  Part of this attitude may be based on the rich Indian tradition of 'pari katha' (or 'roop kahini') fables, narrated by our grandparents and also published, where children were encouraged to delve into the dream world of fairies and kings, learning some good values in the bargain - the Panchatantra tales and Chandamama magazine may be good examples.

But another part may also be based on the Indian philosophy which seems to hold that truth is only what you perceive (there is only one absolute truth: God), and is dependent on circumstances.  Some scholars hold that even the venerable Bhagvad Gita seems to propound this philosophy of a 'context for the truth'.  And the epic Mahabharata has a famous incident where the God incarnate Krishna encourages the eldest Pandava brother Yudhishthira, known as the upholder of absolute truth, to be 'economical with the truth' ("Ashwatthama hata iti gaja") so that the Kaurava commander (and the guru of both clans) Dronacharya could be killed.  Even in our daily life, and perhaps especially when it comes to children, we seem to hold the view that only that part of truth need be shared which would do no harm to anyone, and truth which harms anyone is probably not worth sharing.

Back to the story.  It turns out that the old man's truth (about pretending to be Santa) was the last straw - the child learns during the evening that his mom had been lying to him about his dad being in 'America' (while he was actually in rehab), the mom had been lying to (or at least not sharing the truth with) dad about having had him thrown out of his job, and now this!  Even when the old man tries to explain that the whole thing started when the child presumed he was Santa 'coz he looked like Santa, and that he went along just to keep him out of his lawn (and he didn't pretend to be all powerful: he does tell the child when he asks Santa to keep his dad off drugs that he can't help and his dad has to find the 'magic' in his own heart), he gets no buy in for the argument.  So what's the big issue here?  Why is the old man's lie such a big deal, among all the other lies flying thick and fast?

And what about the effect of the truth on a child?  The story also tells us that Tony took to drugs while in teens because he could not 'fit in', because he was the adopted child of his parents (he keeps arguing with his adoptive mom Tess that it was she who was at fault, not he! - though he also makes up with her later).  Just wondering: would it have been better for Tony to NOT know the truth about his being an adopted child, at least till he gained the wisdom and stability to handle that truth?  Takes us back to the hit '70s Hindi movie 'Kabhi Kabhi' where the adoptive parents of Neetu Singh (Parikshit Sahni & Simi) decide to tell the daughter (ostensibly a teenager) about her adoption and the identity of her real mom (Waheeda Rehman) - a difficult decision (much crying by Simi!), but one taken 'in the best interest of the daughter'.

Of course, there can be two sides to the coin.  Some may say 'Who are you to decide what is the right age to learn the truth?'  Fair point, but don't we as parents make such decisions - as to what is good for our child and what is not - on a day to day basis?  The argument can go on.  But the point that strikes me is the difference in the World-view in this respect between Oriental and Occidental cultures, as pointed out above.  It also has some relation to the importance given in the Western culture to treating children 'with respect' from a young age - an honorable motive but sometimes abused by the recipients of such favour!  Some would say this is treating kids 'with kid gloves'(!) - look at the huge controversy generated by the book 'Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother', even when the author Amy Chua stated later that the book was a kind of self-parody memoir.

There are of course no right or wrong answers to this debate.  Each of us has to take a view based on our own judgment and in the best interest of our children.


Archana Bose said...

Went thru it... Interesting topic to debate on..... BTW Spriha still believes in Santa Claus & still writes letters to him & leaves it on the balcony for him to scoop it up in the pre-christmas week. Off late she has been coming to me saying that some of her friends in school have been telling her that there is no Santa Claus & it is our parents who leave the gifts for us under the tree! But I convince her into believing otherwise. This is her way of living up a fairy tale.

I tell her the truth about something only when I am kinda sure that she has the maturity to analyse & accept it. Else it becomes difficult for them to grasp a whole lot of matters. When I look back on my childhood, I see that quite a few matters that traumatized me then wouldn't have done so if I had been faced with them a few years from then. But I do not lie to her about the 'thing' existing , I just give her a reason that helps her accept it.
It is ok to treat a child with 'respect' but not to crowd her with stuff that she does not understand.

Deb said...

The novel is 'The Wish List', by Martina Reilly (read it in the Reader's Digest - Select Editions).

Ritcha said...

Thanks Denashish. This made me question a lot of things around me...