I was at Chili’s the other night, having a couple of well-deserved drinks with a friend, when I observed something that wriggled its way into my brain and stuck there. It didn’t even really register with me at first. A family was having dinner a few tables away. There was a man, a woman, and a small boy, maybe seven years old. I didn’t notice them much at first, but after a while, a short argument went down about something I didn’t catch. Honestly, I wasn’t paying much attention. Someone raised a voice, someone contradicted the other. Then the boy offered his input. I don’t know what he said, but it was about ten seconds long, and at the end of it, the man reacted. It wasn’t violent, or anything. He just grabbed the kid’s arm, not hard enough to hurt him but hard enough to make me wince, and said very loudly “Don’t tell stories!”
I brushed it off and went back to my beer. The boy didn’t speak again, that I saw, for the rest of the meal.
But that episode grew and distilled in my mind until it had become a sort of gnawing horror.
Because you see, I knew what the man meant. The little boy had presented an untruth as truth, and had been rightly reprimanded for it. “Don’t tell stories” meant “Don’t tell lies.” That’s pretty good advice. That’s also not the advice that was given.
Children’s brains work differently from adult brains. They’re still constructing their understanding of the world. They’re still fitting that understanding to a language they haven’t fully mastered. At some point, they discover their ability to express things that don’t really exist. That’s not lying, exactly. It’s also not that false imagination adults sometimes invoke when a child says something fantastic and a nearby mature moron responds with “What an active imagination!” as though imagination is some sort of vaguely amusing mental illness that causes hallucinations so vivid, puny child brains can’t tell them from reality. Children know reality from fiction – their own fictions – at a very early age. They may believe in superheroes and wizards from television, but despite imagining that Barbie is going on a dinosaur-hunting safari, no child I’ve ever encountered has believed that Barbie is a real hunter, or that Rexie the dinosaur is really dead. Children do not get confused by the images they create inside their minds.
The problem is expression, and this has a very obvious cause. The book begins “Once upon a time, in a kingdom far away, there was a brave little tailor,” not “You know, I was imagining this story that’s not really real, and wouldn’t it be interesting – but bear in mind this isn’t real – if there was a kingdom – a fake kingdom – somewhere, and it was a long time ago – but not actual time, because that’s history – where there was this…”
No. When grown-ups pour their hearts and souls into a world born inside their own heads, they don’t preface it with “ALERT: THIS IS NOT REAL.” The assumption is that the reader/viewer is not a complete bonehead and can tell that certain things are fiction. This is the mode children learn by observation. They learn by observation that their stories are valuable, and that the best presentation is verisimilitude. The whole point of a story is pretending that it’s real – pretending, while knowing that it isn’t.
Adults underestimate children. I think I can state that as general fact. Most adults underestimate most children in most situations. Thus, when a child generates a story and presents it in the format adults use to present stories, the child is shot down for lying.
Don’t get me wrong; children do lie. They’re not the idiots a lot of people assume them to be, and they’re not the beacons of angelic purity, either. They’re as clever as adults, and can often be as conniving. The difference is that they don’t have the body of knowledge to work with. Children lie to get out of trouble, to get someone else into trouble, to get something they want, or just to create mayhem. They do lie.
That doesn’t change the fact that the all-knowing adults often can’t tell a story from a lie, and treating stories as lies is damaging. How many children have internalized that barked order – “Don’t tell stories!” – and have let all their stories die untold as a result, both the lies and the brilliant ideas? How many novelists have we lost to that horrible little piece of linguistic imprecision? How many seven-year-old screenwriters, comic artists, and playwrights have trudged through life full of stories they don’t dare tell?