Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Liar, Liar

In which I rant.

"Hello!" said the dental assistant this morning when Tink and I walked in. "Are you ready to come back and play with me?"

Tink looked at me, one eyebrow raised. It's been a year since her last visit to the dentist and I'd prepped her on what might happen. Playing wasn't part of it.

"C'mon," the dental assistant called as she walked down the hall. "This is going to be so much fun."

"No, it's not," I thought. "It's a trip to the dentist. It's going to be dull at best, painful and terrifying at worst."

Tink grabbed my hand when we got into the room. "What is all that stuff?" she whispered.

"That's the equipment the dentist will use to check your teeth," I said, pulling up a chair so I could sit right next to her.

"This is weird," Tink said to the dental assistant.

"You're doing great, honey," the dental assistant said. "See? Being at the dentist is fun."

I am proud to report that neither Tink nor I strangled anyone at the dentist's this morning. Now, I know the dental assistant was trying to allay Tink's fears. I don't blame her; I know there are kids for whom the super positive attitude helps.

But Tink is not one of them. And I don't believe in lying to kids. Particularly not in the face of something that might be painful. How many of you believe it when you hear "This won't hurt a bit" from a doctor?

Which brings us to today's writing rant: lying.

When I was little, "liar" was a bad word in our house. I remember someone explaining to me that lying to a friend showed a lack of respect for her, as if she didn't deserve the truth, or couldn't handle it.* and **

Children are people. And as such they are deserving of our respect and honesty. And if you think they can't handle the truth of what you're writing, you shouldn't be writing it for them.

Jacqui's Four Most Despised Ways Books Lie to Kids

1. Portraying making friends as easy. If you smile wide enough, you'll meet someone the first day. Making friends is NOT easy. For anyone, child or adult. The playground in second grade can be a brutal place and it's totally reasonable to be anxious about it. Stop writing stories where everybody loves everybody by the end.

2. Non-scientific explanations for scientific and natural phenomena. I'm not talking about folktales that explain how zebras got their stripes, which I think kids recognize as folktales. I'm talking about outright not being able to explain the science clearly and fudging it or going with a "thunder is caused by God moving his furniture" theory. There's enough scientific misinformation out there, and kids will remember the science in your story as fact. So make sure it's true and clear.

3. Unresearched historical fiction or unresearched settings. I know some people will disagree with me on this. I feel that if you're going to use a setting, historical or otherwise, that you are inherently telling people that you know something about that setting. Kids learn from stories. If you set your book in 1347 in a rural village in China, I'm going to assume that in reading it, I will learn something true about life in a rural village in China. Make sure what I learn is true.

4. Life is 100% sunny. This is a big one. Picture books in particular are guilty of it. Adults forget entirely how scary, confusing, and big the world seems when you're young. Or, like the dental assistant, they think if they ignore the bad feelings, they'll go away. They won't go away, any more than a trip to the dentist will be fun just because you say it is. And in ignoring them, we're just sending kids the message that either we have no idea what's going on with them or we think it's unimportant or unacceptable.

"Okay! You're all done! Great job!" the dental assistant said when Tink was finished.

"I'm going to be tardy," Tink announced.

"But when you walk in, everyone is going to notice how white and shiny your teeth are."

Tink looked at me. I shrugged. We made her next appointment and walked out. I congratulated her on having no cavities and on being a big girl during the appointment.

"That was not fun," Tink said.

"No, I'd imagine not," I said.

"I hate the dentist," she said.

"Most people do," I said.

I'd like to say that Tink said something hilarious and yet poignant here. But that would be a lie...

* Go ahead, say it, Jack Nicholson fans. You know you want to.
** This, by the way, relates to politics, which I usually don't touch here. When politicians lie (or dumb-down the truth or skirt the question), I think it represents the same thing: a lack of respect for me as a voter, or distrust of my ability to understand the truth. And if he/she doesn't respect me, how can I trust him/her to lead with my best interests in mind?


J. Thorp said...

Well said, my friend. And I appreciate the footnote about politics.

Another line from A Few Good Men, when the younger Marine gets rattled on the stand and starts calling for help from his comrade ("Hal? Hal?!"): "Private, answer the captain's question!"

Tabitha said...

"When politicians lie (or dumb-down the truth or skirt the question), I think it represents the same thing: a lack of respect for me as a voter, or distrust of my ability to understand the truth. And if he/she doesn't respect me, how can I trust him/her to lead with my best interests in mind?"

Well said. This is a big part of why lying isn't tolerated in our house, either from my kids or from me. Kids are quite capable of handling truth. We don't have to serve it up in all it's scary gore, but we can give them truth nonetheless. Because the sooner they learn that telling the truth respects both yourself and the person you're speaking to, the better off they'll be. :)

Tee Brown said...

Great rant, Jacqui!


cindy said...

whew! i love historicals but i'm glad i wrote a fantasy. i hope i'll write an accurate historical some day!

and what mad person would say visiting the dentist is fun?!!

Marcia said...

Boy, do I ever agree with point #1. I hate the implication that if you'll just be nice to the kid sitting next to you, that kid will become your good friend. Are friends so interchangeable or easy to come by that the most available kid is going to be your friend? Variation: the stories that say "If we just understand that little Johnny is mean because he's sad or jealous, and explain that mean words hurt, little Johnny will collapse in tears of remorse and be our friend forevermore." Hogwash.

sruble said...

Great post. Agree with you totally on the lying and with Tink on the dentist.

I have a hard time not writing happy PBs, which is probably why all my PBs suck ;) Although the one that's being considered now has an element of truth to it, even if there's some happy at the end.

Thanks for giving me things to think about for my PBs.

The Bill Cochran said...

Well, as an author about death and divorce... At least I know I'm not violating edict #4!


I think I'll go make a friend now.

Jacqui said...

Hey, thanks all for agreeing with my rant! :)

Sorry I'm behind in responding -- crazy weekend. The truth, I swear!