Lie to your kids — it’s good for them

Give them puzzle, give them answers that makes them think

Okay, not “lie”, really. That is a provocative word, clickbait, used to catch your attention. What I am advocating is: don’t automatically give them a straight answer. Argue with them, force them to think.

That is how I brought up my two sons, occasionally to the horror of friends and relatives. “Why do you keep telling them wrong things?” they’d ask. Because they enjoy correcting me! And thinking things through for themselves. And I am doing the same to my two grandchildren now, three and four years old, who clearly enjoy it as much as the generation before them did.

Take a look at Enders, at the age of two and a half. A butterfly alighted on his chest, and he was nervous about it. “Make it go away,” he said. “Are you scared?” I asked. Yes he was. When it was gone I said: “You are right to be afraid. They have a horrible bite, they can rip pieces of flesh out of your chest.” A while later he came to me and said: “No, butterflies cannot bite, they suck nectar out of flowers.” He had discussed the matter with my wife and his parents — he had done research, and now he came to explain the true facts to me. I should mention that two years later Enders will catch and pick up frogs, lizards and even spiders. And of course I made sure he knew I was not joking when I told him that bees can sting!

I did this all the time. Enders’ uncle Tommy, who was extraordinarily bright as a young child — sorry, he still is!—bore the main brunt of it. The family remembers many tall stories he had to deal with. I will give you one example: while out driving we saw some wind turbines, and Tommy, about four years old, asked: “What is that.” “Those are fans that generates wind,” I said. “When you are in the garden sometimes you feel a breeze, right? Well, where do you think that comes from? The wind blows when they switch on those fans.” He was silent and sank into thought. It was clear that he was not taking my explanation at face value. And then, the next day, he came to me and said: “That was not correct, they don’t make wind, they are turned by the wind!” I questioned all members of the household, trying to find who had explained it to him. They didn’t know what I was talking about, so it wasn’t them. Had he looked it up on Wikipedia? Hardly, the Internet had not been invented yet. I can only conclude he got it from one of the neighbours. Or figured it out himself?! Tommy never told me how he knew things.

Kids love my method, believe me. Not just in my family, but random children I encounter, after they have overcome their initial surprise and disbelief. It becomes a game, a challenge. When driving to the zoo with a bunch of three and four-year-olds I told them we were going to see elephants, giraffes, dinosaurs, tigers and bears. There was a whoop from most of them: “Not dinosaurs!” And the most precocious said: “There are no dinosaurs left, they all went extinct when an asteroid hit the earth long, long ago.” And patiently explained it in greater detail to his younger friends in the car.

This method of teaching and entertaining young children is not an invention of mine. I probably picked it up from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. Alice is constantly faced with false and illogical statements by the animals she meets, and is constantly forced to argue and correct them. Or generally discuss semantics. Here’s an example:

“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly. “I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone: “so I can’t take more.” “You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter: “it’s very easy to take more than nothing.”

John Tenniel’s original illustration of Alice meeting the March Hare and the Mad Hatter (1865)

A biographer wrote about Carroll: “Throughout his life he took great delight in puzzles and paradoxes, and presented them to his child friends and many adult ones as well. It gave him enormous pleasure to see young minds struggling to resolve them.” The logic problems presented in Alice were meant to be solved, or simply pondered for their philosophical merit.

There is a great contemporary writer and pedagogue who has picked up the tradition and taken it to the extreme:

Or this one:

That, of course, is Calvin asking his dad in the wonderful series of books by Bill Watterson. If you have children and don’t know Calvin and Hobbes, go get all of them now. No child should grow up without knowing C&H.

One of my favorite discussions between Calvin and his dad is the following:

Calvin: Dad, how come old photographs are always black and white? Didn’t they have color film back then?
Dad: Sure they did. In fact, those old photographs ARE in color. It’s just the WORLD was black and white then.
Calvin: Really?
Dad: Yep. The world didn’t turn color until sometime in the 1930s, and it was pretty grainy color for a while, too.

Calvin’s dad makes me look like a rank amateur. Here’s a strip that shows you just how far he will go. If you do a google image search for “Calvin’s dad” you will find hundreds of more strips to read. Have a nice afternoon doing so.

One final story: Enders is now four and an expert in refuting his granddad’s tall tales. Recently he was eating corn off a cob and boasted about his teeth: “Look how strong they are, I can bite through anything!” “Yes, they are really great,” I said, “pity they will all fall out, soon. You will lose them all.” Big grin from Enders — right, and my head will fall off too? Grandpa is always saying crazy things. “Well, go ask your grandmother,” I said. This he did, somewhat reluctantly. A week later I tested him: “So you are going to lose all those lovely strong teeth?” “Sure,” said Enders cheerfully, “but I will get new and better ones!” Grandma had explained it all to him.

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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