My local Charlotte Mason book club is currently reading through Parents and Children. (This is the study guide I’m working on — it should be out in Fall of 2020, I think.) I’ve read it a couple times before, but it’s been a while, and my children are so much older than last time that I feel like I’m reading it for the first time all over again. Last week, we discussed (among other things) Charlotte Mason’s thoughts on lying.
What’s interesting about Charlotte Mason is that she doesn’t view lying as a primary sin. In her economy, it’s a symptom of another problem. I go back and forth on whether or not I agree with her. Last night, our discussion wandered off into nuanced territory Miss Mason never touches on, like the lying done by Rahab and the Hebrew midwives in the Old Testament. Putting those thoughts to the side, though, let’s explore what Charlotte Mason taught and then you can decide for yourself.
A Note About Curing Lies
Lying is a serious sin, it’s true. But not all lies are the same. Charlotte Mason seemed to believe that if we really understood what type of lie was told, we’d more easily grasp its cure — for the cures are not all the same, either.
So … let’s explore her six types of lies and their cures as listed in chapter 19 of Parents and Children.
This seems like a weird word to use. Today, it’s a general reference to irrational fears, rather than specifically about lying. Pseudophobia a la Charlotte Mason is, however, a symptom in some children with weaker minds. The children affected by pseudophobia are afraid they have lied. These children don’t always have a firm grasp of reality and they sometimes believe they did something they didn’t actually do. They confess to it and therefore, as Charlotte Mason says,
in the effort to save herself from a lie, has actually told one.Parents and Children, p. 207
Miss Mason thinks this type of lie has a physical cause. The example she gives is of a sick child who believe she has committed the unpardonable sin. We had a child who was like this when she was younger, and I have reason to agree with Miss Mason’s speculations regarding the unbalanced, unhealthy body producing an unbalanced, unhealthy mind.
Miss Mason’s cure for pseudophobia is, first, an enlarged life:
Healthy interests, out-of-door life, engrossing and delightful handiworks, general occupation with things rather than with thoughts, and avoidance of any word or hint that may lead to self-consciousness or the habit of introspection, will probably do much to carry the young sufferer through a difficult stage of life.Parents and Children, p. 208
2. Heroic Lies
The “lie heroic” is lying to protect a friend. Miss Mason says that this comes from “want of moral balance”:
Faithfulness to a friend is a far higher virtue in Tom’s eyes than mere barren truthfulness. And how is Tom to know, if he has not been taught, that it is unlawful to cherish one virtue at the expense of another?Parents and Children, p. 208
A common example of this lie is when a boy takes the blame for an infraction committed by his friend.
Miss Mason’s cure for heroic lies is moral instruction. These lies are born of a well-meaning but misguided heart. Rebuke may be necessary, but it’s not the cure. Instead, we need to give this child some lessons in ethics:
[H]ow is Tom to know, if he has not been taught, that it is unlawful to cherish one virtue at the expense of another? Considering how little clear, definite, authoritative teaching children receive on ethical questions, the wonder is that most persons do elaborate some kind of moral code, or code of honour, for themselves.Parents and Children, p. 208
Many children, especially boys, will think it noble to cover for a friend. Correcting that notion is sometimes all that is necessary to prevent future lies. These children need to be taught that while loyalty is important, honesty is important as well.
3. Lies for Enemies
The child who tells lies in this way speaks truth to his friends, but doesn’t think enemies deserve honesty. Charlotte Mason says this is similar to the lie heroic, but in this instance the speaker isn’t risking himself the way he would if he was taking the fall for his friend.
This is symptomatic of a type of moral relativism, Miss Mason tells us:
It is quite natural for a child to believe that truth is relative, and not absolute, and that whether a lie is a lie or not depends on whom you are speaking to.Parents and Children, p. 209
Because this lie is a close cousin of the heroic lie, Miss Mason’s cure is similar as well. This lie, too, reveals a need for ethical instruction, but whereas in heroic lying we must balance virtues and teach that honesty is as important as loyalty, here we must teach the absolute nature of truth. Truth does not depend on who is hearing what we say; what we say either corresponds with reality, or it doesn’t. Miss Mason says this lie results from “moral ignorance,” therefore teaching is the cure.
4. Selfish Lies
Miss Mason defines this type of lie very simply: it’s any lie inspired by selfishness. The child might be trying to gain something or get out of something. No matter. If the lie is born of a selfish spirit, it’s a selfish lie.
Because these lies are caused by selfishness, curing the lie requires curing the selfishness:
Cure the [selfishness], and the [lying] disappears, having no further occasion.Parents and Children, p. 209
The cure here requires the intervention of God Himself:
Nothing but a strong impulse to the heroism of unselfishness, initiated and sustained by the grace of God, will deliver boy or girl from the vice of selfishness of which lying is the ready handmaid. But let us not despair; every boy and girl is open to such impulse, is capable of heroic effort. Prayer and patience, and watchfulness for opportunities to convey the stimulating idea—these will not be in vain.Parents and Children, p. 209
Curing a character flaw like this takes hard work on the part of the mother. It requires great care and attention over an extended period of time. Miss Mason reminds us that it is better to prevent this in the first place by not allowing selfishness to grow up in the heart of the child:
It is easy to give direction to the tendencies of a child; it is agonisingly difficult to alter the set of character in a man.Parents and Children, p. 209
5. Imaginative Lies
Imaginative lies are told by imaginative children — they sometimes spin wild tales and present them as fact. This is often an attempt to embellish normal life and make it more interesting by adding flair. You know: What happened at the park today? And what ensues involves a zebra and an acrobat and couldn’t possibly have taken place.
Here’s the interesting thing: Miss Mason views this as a sign of hunger. The starved imagination wants story and adventure so badly it will manufacture them itself. It’s sort of like how, if you don’t consume enough protein, your body will begin to break down your own muscle tissue.
Miss Mason prescribes fairy tales and make-believe as the cure for imaginative lies. This seems counter-intuitive, but remember: she believes this is symptomatic of a type of mind-hunger.
Give the child free entrance into, abundant joyous living in, the kingdom of make-believe. Let him people every glen with fairies, every island with Crusoes. Let him gift every bird and beast with human interests, which he will share when the dear fairy godmother arrives with an introduction.Parents and Children, p. 211
Pseudomania is commonly called pathological lying. Miss Mason says this is a “mentally diseased condition.” This type of liar lies all the time, about everything, even about things that don’t matter and don’t seem worth the effort.
Miss Mason seems to think this is a habit of mind that has been allowed to grow up in the child’s life. She doesn’t prescribe much by way of cure, though she says cure should be attempted (rather than punishment). I think, possibly, strict habit training could be helpful.
Miss Mason’s main advice is prevention:
[W]e believe [pseudomania] is a condition which need never be set up. The girl who has been able to win esteem for what she really is and really does, is not tempted to ‘pose,’ and the boy who has found full outlet for his energies, physical and mental, has no part of himself left to spend upon ‘humbugging.’Parents and Children, p. 212
Charlotte Mason doesn’t prescribe much punishment for lying. Your mileage may vary. I certainly found that, around age three or four, all of my children realized I wasn’t omniscient and toyed around with lying. Swift punishment quickly made an end of it. I classify this as “keeping watch at the letting out of waters,” as Miss Mason so beautifully describes it.
Regardless of your take on the punishment for lies, Charlotte Mason challenges us to think much less about punishment and much more about training in virtue:
[N]either truthfulness nor the multiplication table come by nature. The child who appears to be perfectly truthful is so because he has been carefully trained to truthfulness, however indirectly and unconsciously. It is more important to cultivate the habit of truth than to deal with the accident of lying.Parents and Children, p. 213