Lies, leaky abstractions and children


I recently read the essay “Lies we tell children” by Paul Graham, in which he analyses the way in which adults create an abstracted and somewhat idealised world for children.

I’m using the word “lie” in a very general sense: not just overt falsehoods, but also all the more subtle ways we mislead kids. Though “lie” has negative connotations, I don’t mean to suggest we should never do this—just that we should pay attention when we do.

It is a lengthy, but thought provoking essay, and explores the different reasons for which real information is withheld from children. Reasons could range from just maintaining control to the difficulty of putting information in context.

Due to this, the world in a child’s mind takes a binary form consisting of absolutes – right and wrong, good and evil, black and white. This theme can also be seen quite clearly in movies for children (think of any of the Disney animations). However, during the transition from childhood to adulthood, this binary abstraction of the world begins to leak just like any computer related abstraction. Children begin to see the different shades between black and white, and general inconsistencies in the explanations given to them by adults. Some theories seem utterly illogical while others begin to make more sense. The real world also begins to test many of the ideals taught to them.

In this way, the journey to adulthood is somewhat like the transformation of a black and white world with two shades into a full colour world. Some misconceptions persist into adulthood, with inquisitiveness being the best tool to combat them.

Paul Graham’s conclusion from the same essay:

We arrive at adulthood with a kind of truth debt. We were told a lot of lies to get us (and our parents) through our childhood. Some may have been necessary. Some probably weren’t. But we all arrive at adulthood with heads full of lies.
There’s never a point where the adults sit you down and explain all the lies they told you. They’ve forgotten most of them. So if you’re going to clear these lies out of your head, you’re going to have to do it yourself.
Few do. Most people go through life with bits of packing material adhering to their minds and never know it. You probably never can completely undo the effects of lies you were told as a kid, but it’s worth trying. I’ve found that whenever I’ve been able to undo a lie I was told, a lot of other things fell into place.
Fortunately, once you arrive at adulthood you get a valuable new resource you can use to figure out what lies you were told. You’re now one of the liars. You get to watch behind the scenes as adults spin the world for the next generation of kids.
The first step in clearing your head is to realize how far you are from a neutral observer.

So how many misconceptions have you been able to shake off?

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