Truth and Its Companion, Untruth

**Trigger warning: contains a few sentences on domestic violence

Having bought a box of Christmas cards this week with unbridled, excited anticipation for the festive season (sorry), awareness dawned the Father Christmas conversation is again afoot.  A culture of “believe” is promoted in our house.  Families choose what to tell their children, and some say belief in kindness including Father Christmas and The Tooth Fairy is an important part of child development.

While supporting belief in childhood pleasures can be enriching, altering the truth about harsh realities in life can have a very different effect.  As a large scale, national inquiry was recently further delayed by the surfacing of fresh elements of complexity, a cry for the “truth” once again reverberated around the country, in the press and on social media.  I thought about “the truth” concerning difficult topics, and how we expect children to always “tell the truth.”  What do we mean?  How do we model this? Why do adults modify narratives to change “the truth” sometimes? Is due consideration given to how children will forgive being told the untruths later on when they learn the reality?

Recalling an early memory concerning a story of domestic violence; I was 5 years old, my dad was a frontline social worker in Blackburn so I understood about abuse even as a child so young.  My mother spoke to me haltingly, with wavering composure, to convey a classmate’s bereavement….

“….his Mummy had an accident, darling…. She and his Daddy were playing a game…..his Daddy tied her hands to the bannister…..they were playing…..then he put a sock in her mouth…..but he forgot to take it out…..and then he went out…….she couldn’t breathe properly…..they were just playing a little game……”

I remember awareness of my mother trying to control her shaky voice and her tears.  I remember remaining extremely still and quiet.  Mostly, I remember thinking it just didn’t sound right – the ‘game’ and the ‘forgetting’ of the sock.  These were grown-ups, after all. How could such an “accident” have happened? I sensed at the time I was not being told the truth, though never questioned it.  Years after, I knew it was domestic violence.  An episode of domestic violence resulting in a woman’s murder at the hands of her partner, and two small boys losing their mother.

When children choose to tell an untruth, it is at times a form of self-preservation.  In relation to wrong-doing, teachers have a range of ways of encouraging children to ‘own up.’

“……I will feel less disappointed if you have done it and told the truth than if I find out the truth later.”

“…..we will all stay in at breaktime until someone tells the truth about what happened.”

“……..I will expect a note on my desk by the end of the day to let me know what happened.”

Children are encouraged to speak, to speak the truth. We highlight the necessity for listening to the Voice of the Child. Yet sometimes what a child might tell us might mean they face consequences for choices they have made, behaviour they have engaged in.  This might influence the truth they choose to tell.  A child may choose an untruth for a range of other reasons, including perhaps that the reality carries more pain or shame than they feel able to speak of.  Sharing an untruth may feel safer at that point in time.

In a different way, perhaps sometimes when adults tell children untruths, it is also a form of self-preservation; what parent wants to tell their child horrible, scary truths about  harm, violence and at times death?  In some ways, parents are perhaps protecting their own well-being, not wanting to tell their child stories of fears or deep sorrow and then manage the child’s emotions, supporting them with the trauma of what they have heard.

Adults should not feel judged on decisions to tell truths or untruths when communicating traumatic events to children.  It is a personal choice. Indeed, it may be less safe to make a decision based on opinions of others. As a child with social workers for parents, I knew truths about the horror of abuse much younger than some of my peers, having heard my parents debriefing their work-day.  While other adults were aghast at such early awareness of child abuse, some of that early understanding has contributed to my chosen career. When making the decision between a truth and untruth though, it is worth bearing in mind two things:

  • Children’s learned behaviour is modelled on that of the adults they are watching.
  • Sometimes, processing the truth is easier than later discovering a traumatic event and the fact one was also told an untruth about it.

As with all decisions, when choosing between truth and untruth, careful consideration is essential – and ultimately always keeping the individual child and their feelings at the very centre of any decisions made which will affect them.