The Happiness Project says: live better by deceiving your kids.

February 18, 2009 | By | 6 Replies More

fingers-crossed-b-and-wI usually like the online magazine Slate. I listen to many of Slate’s podcasts, read several of the site’s posts a week, and peruse their author-run blogs on occasion, too. The site isn’t perfect, but I usually carry some respect for the site’s authors and its generally thoughtful, funny content. Exceptions being boneheaded pursuits like their recent attempt to track down the evolutionary origins of Facebook’s 25 Things meme (Hint to Slate: that trend dates back to the years before Facebook, the golden days  of Livejournal).

But for all of Slate’s occasionally out-of-touch, misguided posts, nothing beats The Happiness Project. Authored by ex-lawyer and non-Slate author Gretchen Rubin, it’s a recent addition to Slate’s blog roll, and not truly a “part” of Slate itself. I still hold Slate somewhat responsible for sharing the weird wisdom that the blog shares. I’ll provide a pretty representative taste: Five Ways to Outsmart Your 3-Year Old.

Let’s take Way #1. Gretchen writes:

1. “It’s for safety.” For some reason, my daughter wisely accepts safety as an absolute directive, so I invoke it whenever possible. For example, I characterized the “no slamming doors” rule as a safety rule, not a noise/behavior rule. “When people slam doors, eventually, people get their fingers smashed. So for safety, no slamming doors.”

I find this tip somewhat disturbing. Ms. Rubin has decided to use her daughter’s fear of danger as a manipulative little trick,  and a way to coerce behavior. Doesn’t this send a potentially ill message to her daughter? That fear of harm should always be on her mind, that danger lurks behind every doorjamb?

Perhaps, as someone who doesn’t have to grapple with kids on a daily basis, I don’t understand the necessity of instilling fear or over-caution. That said, I take side with the Free Range Kids movement, which suggests that our over-cautious society needs to ease back on kids, let them eat dirt, let them walk into the occasional risk or mistake.

Tip #2 is not so bad. Gretchen tells her daughter that the candy and baubles that line store shelves are “just for decoration”, not for purchase. The only thing wrong with this tactic is that, once again, it entails complete deception of a child to make the day a little easier.

Instead of telling her daughter that the items in stores are “not for sale”, couldn’t Ms. Rubin use the moment as a chance to educate her child on the difference between wants and needs, or the risks of overspending? Even if a three-year-old can’t fully grasp those subjects, doesn’t speaking honestly and thoughtfully with a child beat out lying to them?

Tip #3 is my favorite. Gretchen sez:

3. “The doctor says …” Invoking the authority of a doctor, dentist, teacher, or grandparent often makes a message acceptable. “The Yellow Room teachers say children must wear mittens to schools, not gloves.” “I know you don’t feel like brushing your teeth, but Dr. Smith says it’s very important to brush every night.” I’m not above pretending to send an e-mail to get a particular answer.

What, Gretchen? You pressure your daughter to behave by invoking silly, fake appeals to authority? What kind of message does this send? If Gretchen keeps this ruse up for a few more years, she will be hammering into her daughter a sense of total deference to authority, an absolute respect for the yammering of any doctor, teacher, or person in a uniform, no matter how dubious. Even worse, Ms. Rubin constructs a fantasy world where she can elicit any response she wants out of her fake authority figures, by sending imaginary emails. At what point will this deceptive mommy come clean?

Tip #4 has something to do with Gretchen acknowledging that her daughter already knows something that Gretchen wants her to believe. “I know you know this, but other children don’t know that you shouldn’t tap on the glass of a fish tank. They don’t know that the noise bothers the fish. Fortunately for the fish, you already know that.”

I’ll concede that this act doesn’t exactly require lying to a child. To me, it still smacks of indoctrination. It reminds me of when religious parents tell their children, “You know we don’t believe in sex before marriage”, or “You know we don’t do things like that in our family.” Telling a young mind what they should believe or know, instead of just imparting that knowledge in a more objective manner, is really quite deceptive.

And Tip #5:

5. “The sign says …” Like most children who can’t yet read, my daughter is extremely impressed by the power of the written word. She will obey any sign. And because she can’t read, a sign can say anything that I want it to say.

Again with the respect for impotent authority! Ms. Rubin loves to use unjustified, authoritarian rule to push her daughter into behavior, apparently. This tactic closely echos the “doctor says…” tip, but it packs a double-whammy: it shows an utter disrespect for the written word.

If Gretchen lied to her daughter about the text of every sign (or even most signs), would her daughter have trouble learning how to read? Some children learn to read at 3 or 4 years of age. Could Ms. Rubin inadvertently quash her daughter’s efforts to decipher text by contradicting what the letters and symbols actually say? By dictating the all-knowing message of the signs, Gretchen puts no onus on her daughter to learn to read and interpret signs herself.

I can’t imagine the endpoint that Gretchen Rubin has in mind when she invokes these lies. Pulling answers out of the air and packaging them in the trappings of safety and obedience only achieve an easy quick-fix. Soon, the little Rubin girl will learn how to read, or begin asking her teachers and doctors questions. She will learn that almost any item in a store can be bought. How will she respond then?

In the real world, doctors and signs and stores that sell nothing are not all around us; we have to actually regulate our own actions. Will Ms. Rubin’s daughter have no self control? Or more ironically: Will Gretchen’s daughter learn from an early age that she cannot trust her mother’s authority, and quickly be thrust into the world of defiant skepticism? Fingers crossed.

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Category: American Culture, Communication, Consumerism, Culture, Education, Fraud, ignorance

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

Comments (6)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    Eventually, these deceptions will unravel. This technique almost guarantees that the child will learn contempt for authority, and perhaps to think for herself.

    One lesson is that what mom says a sign says is not what the sign says.

    Another is that intermediaries for authorities often misrepresent what said authority said.

    Both are good training for dealing with religious leaders.

  2. Mark says:

    I once heard the experience of being the parent of a small child compared to being on 24-hour suicide watch. You do get focused on keeping the little scamps alive. The feeling goes away for the most part, but considering the child in question is preliterate I expect it to be mostly still in effect. For that reason it's hard for me to criticize the Parental Appeal to Safety. Danger actually does lurk everywhere.

    But this lady is definitely off the beam. For starters, she seems not to have questioned why her child respects every authority except her parent — the one person every kid needs to trust.

  3. Hi Erika,

    Gretchen Rubin here — I'm sorry to hear that you don't enjoy my blog. I certainly got a lot of negative comments about that post; many people agreed with you that it's better to be honest with children rather than to make explanations like "It's for decorations."

    Your comments, and those others, have given me a lot to think about.

    I appreciate your taking the time to write, and I've enjoyed poking around on Dangerous Intersection. You communicate your interests and your passions very powerfully.

    Best, Gretchen

  4. Erika Price says:

    (x-posted to Gretchen's blog)

    Gretchen,

    Thanks for checking out my post on Dangerous Intersection and responding in such a gracious manner. Your ability to field criticism in a level-headed way is probably your strongest evidence yet that your path to happiness is really getting somewhere! It definitely has had an impression on me.

    I suppose I should also point out that Ms. Rubin does always portray her suggestions as aspects of her own personal "happiness project", not necessarily guidelines that work for all people.

  5. Bev says:

    I also reacted skeptically to Gretchen's post. While my parents were not of the persuasion that any explanation or "trick" should be expected of them in their directives to my sister and I, we naturally wondered "why" we should follow them. When no wise commentary was forthcoming, we resorted to our own imaginations.

    That's why my first reaction to Way #1 was: asking "why" is the beauty of childhood! We have the time and energy as kids to ask "why." The whole point of parenting is to protect children while they begin to ask "why." So to mislead our children is really to sully their childhoods. I don't mean to sound overly critical, but in the end, to confuse youthful queries with arrogance or irreverence and dismiss them as such is to create an obstacle in the youthful path to wisdom.

    Curiosity is also the beauty of a thoughtful adulthood. Without the former, where does one develop the latter?

    Is it such a terrible thing for a child to doubt her parents' wisdom or to request some examples for consideration? If anything, parents might develop a keener sense of logic, responsibility and curiosity in response to their children's eager analysis.

    Parents are role models in more than one way. I can imagine being too lazy to think through my own parental instructions, but I hope that when the time comes, I will get around to articulating the reasons for my decisions about what my children should and should not be allowed to do. How else should I expect my kids to learn analytical reasoning or the application of analytical reasoning to daily life?

    My second reaction to Gretchen's post was the thought that lying to a child is the practical result of fear. Why would anyone lie to a child, if not for the horror of being recognized as a fraud, or to avoid a lengthly interrogation by said child, the answers to which are difficult even for an adult to grasp?

    Ask any decent teacher about the process of teaching: understanding a student's difficulty with a concept, breaking down the concept and illustrating it for the student to understand. That teacher will tell you that she, too, learned something new about the concept by attempting to elucidate the idea for another. When we are afraid to teach, this indicates a fear that what we teach is not true or entirely accurate to begin with. It seems to me, then, that the act of lying to children is akin to lying to oneself. If we can't explain things to children, then maybe we're just emperors without any clothes.

  6. Dan Klarmann says:

    I have fallen into the "why" zone with children. An endless series of naming the penultimate letter in order to keep a conversation going, to feel a part of the binary group. But they are obviously not paying any attention to the answers.

    I found "why not?" useful to force them to consider that the apparent endless font of adult verbiage may actually contain answers, not just more words. Sometimes "why what?" works, too.

    But it doesn't always work. Then, I get a strong urge to be flip and answer with a deep non-sequitur.

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