The incident between my daughter and her sitter, briefly stated, was this. The two of them were discussing the time her mother and I would be returning from a brief weekend trip out of town. The sitter had understood one time -- late afternoon on Sunday -- and my daughter another time -- early afternoon. As the sitter reported the story of their little disagreement, she warmly recounted how our daughter held to her understanding (which, incidentally, was the correct one), as she said, "I am right because my daddy told me, and he never lies to me"!
Prior to that time, I do not remember ever having thought that much about how and when a child developmentally comes to understand the meaning of lying and truth-telling. I am sure we had talked about telling the truth, but there had never occurred an incident in which we had reason to give the matter extra attention.
But there it was in a very strong jolt for me to reflect upon the way in which a child observes everything, especially what parents do and do not do, what we say, how we say it, and the importance of appropriate honesty with our children and adolescents.
More than we might think to be the case, children learn early on about lies. Recent research by child psychologists and educators informs us that children learn to lie between the ages of two and four. Then, between ten and eleven, they have actually begun to perfect the art. For the most part, these lies of childhood are the "fibs" that we have all engaged in and continue as adults in order to achieve some reward (saying we were sick from work when we actually were sneaking out for a trip to the coast or mountains) or to protect ourselves from some feared retaliation (saying to our supervisor we are late at work because we were stuck in traffic when actually we overslept).
But the important thing regarding children's views about lying is that they know it is wrong. As one five-year-old child said, "You should never tell a lie because the brains inside grown-ups heads are so smart, they always find out." Yes, and there could be unpleasant consequences. Morality is shaped in this instance because there is a "grave danger" for the child, so they will tell you, if they are caught lying. (See the research and educational materials of Scholastic at scholastic.com, where they provide more information on children and lies. See also the outstanding work of the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley, located online at greatergood.berkeley.edu.)
So what we are learning is that children early on determine who is trustworthy and who is not. The older I get and the more people I see in my consulting room as a Jungian psychoanalyst, the more I turn to look at the dynamic of trust, or the absence of it, in shaping a person's life. It is trust that propels a child's life forward, and it is mistrust that drives the child's emerging life off the rails, into the tall weeds, sidetracked and vulnerable to all the mishaps of life: lying, addictions, incompetence, vagrancy, alliances with others whose lives have been sabotaged by the early failure to form trusting relationships in other persons, as well as in our primary institutions that ensure a social contact for life, safety, happiness, and fulfillment in vocational choices.
It is most astounding that we find so little attention paid to trust in the theories of psychotherapy. However, there is one major exception among the theorists of mental health, and that is Erik Erikson (1902-1994). In his book, Identity and the Life Cycle (1959), Erikson outlines his psychosocial theory on the eight stages of life. I will list these stages, and you will note what Erikson calls a "crisis" at each stage, a "fork-in-the-road," so to speak. It is a "crisis" inasmuch as the child's direction reaches a formative point. The child develops along the lines of health and wholeness or veers off into maladaptive patterns. Should the child's life stumble into the unhealthy trajectory, then the outlook for life becomes increasingly dim as each succeeding stage builds upon the preceding stage. But if the outcome of the crisis is successful, then there is developmentally a "virtue" that arises in the child's cognitive and emotional development. By "virtue" Erikson means a moral quality that shapes character and solidifies its further formation, such as hope, love, purposiveness,, etc.
So here are the stages, virtues, and ages proposed by Erikson:
Stage Psychosocial Crisis Basic Virtue Age
1. Trust vs. Mistrust Hope 0-1 1/2
2. Autonomy vs. Shame Will 1 1/2 - 3
3. Initiative vs. Guilt Purpose 3-5
4. Industry vs. Inferiority Competency 5-12
5. Identity vs. Role Confusion Fidelity 12-18
6. Intimacy vs. Isolation Love 18-40
7. Generativity vs. Stagnation Care 40-65
8. Ego Integrity vs. Despair Wisdom 65+
It is the first stage of trust vs. mistrust that concerns me at this moment. If the child is fortunate enough to have loving care from one or more parents, then the child has hope for himself/herself. The world is seen as a good place, a safe place, an inviting place that encourages one to go forward, to take appropriate risks, and to seek relationships with others. How beautiful it is to see children play, to explore different roles, to experiment with objects, art projects, "work" assignments.
And how terrible it is to see children striving for life in a foreboding cloud of anger, war, divisiveness, and alienation from others they learn to hate and mistrust. This is the cloud hanging over our world today. One's race is projected as superior, money and wealth are upheld as the supreme value, the world is described as an unsafe habitat, and violence is practiced as a way of life to justify any means for obtaining what one believes is entitled.
But, thankfully, not everyone lives by that destructive credo. There still are some among us who, like the little five-year-old, believe that "... the brains inside grown-ups heads are so smart, they always find out."