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
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My 8 yr old is trying hard to be good at sneaking and lying. I’m constantly thanking God that he isn’t any good at it. On the surface, its all to get out of something or to avoid some negative consequence, but I’ll be considering possible deeper motivations. But we come down heavy on all dishonesty.
On the other hand, my 3 yr old is turning out to be a very creative story creator. I’ve heard all kinds of stories from grandparents taking him to Hong Kong, which turned out to be in our back yard, and another story where he was being chased and he escaped to the clouds and then turned into whatever was chasing him to hide. I’ve never considered this ‘dishonesty’, but storytelling. We read all kinds of made-up stories ALL-THE-TIME (queue every Santa Claus story, Frosty, Roudolf, Princess and the Goblin, etc). I have seen how it will be a skill for him to learn to tell a story accurately and not add his own creative flair. I realized at one point the neighbor kid isn’t so much lying, but an inaccurate and too creative of a story teller. And no one has taught him the difference. So, I’m thinking about how to teach my 3 yr old the difference.
When I read Parents & Children before, I got the feeling that imaginative story-telling was considered a lie by Miss Mason. But your explanation seems to differentiate. My daughter is constantly talking about people and things that do not exist, except in her imagination. But she speaks of them matter-of-factly and people who do not know her would think she was talking about something real. She is not trying to deceive people, but these imaginary friends, creatures, books, whatever are like an alternate universe to her. She is quick to admit they are not real when asked [She knows a lot about cetaceans, and sometimes she will talk about a species and I have to ask her, “Is this a real dolphin, or one you made up?” and she tells me “It’s on Animal Island,” which we both know is her alternate universe.] Does this fall under Miss Mason’s “free entrance into . . . the kingdom of make believe?” Or is this something I should be trying to discourage, and if so, how do I discourage it without disparaging her imagination?
I had a conversation with our pediatrician, actually, about this sort of thing when one of our girls was very young because sometimes it seemed like she was unable to differentiate between her imagination and reality. He encouraged us to just help her by making it FOR her whenever she didn’t do it herself, and he thought that was enough. It sounds like in your case your daughter really IS able to make the distinction, so that seems less worrisome to me. I think this mostly falls under that “kingdom of make believe” Miss Mason talks about. If it concerns you, maybe just have her preface it with “I want to tell you a story?”
And then Miss Mason would say double her dose of fairy tales and fantasy reading (or read alouds). 😉
“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.”
I have been wrestling with Mason’s views on habit training lately, and this part is a good example. How could a mother possibly fix her children’s character flaws (sin) with hard work? How could we possibly “not allow” selfishness (sin) to grow in the first place?
Can you help me sort this out? Thanks! 🙂
Mary! This is a FABULOUS question.
I’ve really grappled with this … and I DO think that we have to be careful not to take habit training to its extreme. We are not God and He must work in His way and time. I think this is why with the selfish lies she brings up the necessity of the intervention of God. Our intervention alone isn’t enough, though, but it might be the occasion of correction, the beginning of His work.
Here is how I think about this. God created a world in which causes have effects. I assume you discipline your children. If you do this at all, you are already acting on the idea that what you do has some effect upon your child. Remember the passage in Romans about missionary work?
Do missionaries literally save souls? NO. But God also didn’t create a world in which people are miraculously zapped into His kingdom. For people to be saved, someone must preach. Causes have effects.
In the case of our children, I think it’s as mysterious as preaching. I don’t pretend to understand how it all works, but I do observe that careful attention on my part has had real effects in the lives of my children. And by “careful attention” I really just mean doing my best to do my duty as their mother, right? Because Christian parents are called to raise our children in the Lord.
So. In my own children I have observed a difference between sins that are a choice they have made and sins that are habits. When the sin becomes a habit of thought and action, that is the most dangerous because it is almost that the child’s sin has become his worldview. He’s navigating life through the lens of his habitual sin and assuming it as normative for his life.
Let’s take the selfish lies example above. When the child has a whole-life habit of selfishness, and we only address the lies, we are not taking all the action we could. It is as if a preacher has not been sent. True, God can work through other means. They might hear something at church or on the radio, pick something up from a book or from Scripture. But as mothers, we don’t want to gamble on that. We want to do the full work God has given us. So if we use this paradigm, we confront the selfishness, not just the lie. And we try to break the selfish habit of thought that has brought them to this point.
She says, though, that habit isn’t the REAL solution. It’s God’s grace:
But we have a part to play. This is our hard work:
The other hard work is the prevention in the beginning. Can we ALWAYS prevent sinful habits? I don’t think we can. My own position is probably not as strong as Charlotte Mason’s, but much stronger than the average powerless-feeling parent I’ve met. I think swift responses and counsel can go a long way to preventing bad habits, as can keeping their energies directed to truly good things and keeping their interests wide (so they aren’t thinking about themselves so much). It all works together.
Does this help?
I find the last quote so very interesting because, in my mind, lying is not always an accident (especially in an older child) but more intentional to avoid a consequence or outcome. I need help on this one because I do have a child who struggles with this and need to revisit Parents and Children!
I think this — lying to avoid a consequence — falls into the category of “selfish lies.” Those are definitely deliberate! Personally, I feel like lying itself needs a consequence, but I really appreciate her challenge to go deeper and discover an underlying issue (in this case, selfishness). We don’t really have a problem of lying here, but after reading this I noticed some other things that are motivated by selfishness and began dealing with them from that angle instead of just doling out consequences for the behavior. I hope this helps more long term; it’s too soon to tell.
What are some things you’ve done to address selfish, Brandy? I have a 12 yo who this is a huge issue for—everything is all about him. He lies a lot also, but after reading this I can see that the lying stems from selfishness, and the selfishness is a larger and more important issue. But I’m at a loss as to how to address it.
According to Miss Mason, this is by far the hardest one to cure because it requires direct, divine intervention. With that said, I think we mothers can view ourselves as clearing the path. We can’t make the child walk down it — that’s between him and God — but we can clear out the bumps in the road that we have allowed to grow up. For example, if this child plays a lot of video games or engages in other types of intervention, I would cut it all, cold turkey. An entertainment culture sends the constant message that WE are the most important thing; it is especially hard for young minds to fight that message if they are getting it all the time. After this, I would prioritize:
Be patient. Most 12yo children are pretty selfish! But I agree that if it is coupled with lying, it points to a deeper-seated character issue and you are good to address it.
By the way: it’s okay to name our children’s sins. It was so helpful when I realized that! To say in conversation about something that happened: that is disobedience, that is lying, that is unkind, that is selfish — it’s amazing how unaware my children were. When I named them, it helped them to know how to repent, and to see these things for what they were.