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Honesty and Conflicting Perspectives

by Eli H. Newberger, M.D. (6 December 2003)

(This lesson is based on an excerpt of the book "The Men They Will Become: The Nature and Nurture of the Male Character" by Dr. Newberger.)

Chapter 11 in my book "The Men They Will Become" addresses the subject of honesty in boys. This section discusses the different perspectives toward honesty. It follows the section on Varieties of Dishonesty.

Your perspective

What is true—and therefore what one might try to communicate honestly or obscure dishonestly—is influenced by one's perspective. One of the most fascinating studies of perspective was done by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. None other than Albert Einstein requested the study. Einstein's theory of relativity, unlike the reigning Newtonian physics, in which velocity was defined as distance divided by time, posited that time and velocity are defined in terms of each other. Einstein wanted to know if children are born with innate notions of time and velocity, and how their first notions of one affect their learning of the other.

Piaget had four- and five-year-olds observe two toy trains running on parallel tracks. Which train, he asked each young observer, traveled faster? Which ran the longer time? Which went the longer distance? Most of the children said that the train that stopped ahead of the other train was the faster, took longer, and went the greater distance (the trains did not necessarily begin at the same point). Focusing on the stopping points, they ignored all other evidence. They could deal with only one dimension. From the perspective of children, the relations between two or more variables such as time, speed, and distance are more difficult to perceive than they are for adults.

In another experiment, Piaget seated four-year-olds around a play table on which sat a model of three mountains. The children were shown photographs of how the model looked from the perspectives of the other children ranged around the table. Could the children see differences between the photographs and what they saw from their chairs? No. For most four-year-olds, it was impossible. Preschoolers can't see the world from the perspective of others; they think theirs is the only possible viewpoint.

The answer to Einstein, delivered in five hundred pages of text, was that these concepts aren't inborn; distance, time, and velocity aren't comprehended in relation to each other until the school years, generally after the age of six.

Saying what will please the listener

Preschoolers are already capable of saying what they think will please the listener, whether or not what they say is true. When David Parker was five years old, and his brother, Jason, was four, their mother found a nearly empty bottle of children's liquid aspirin on the bathroom floor one Saturday morning about a year ago. She knew that both boys liked the cherry flavoring when they had tasted it in past doses to quell fevers; and she knew that the bottle had been more than three-quarters full when she last used it.

The empty bottle

Panicked, Angela Parker confronted her sons with the empty bottle and asked who had drunk the aspirin. She had good cause to be alarmed. Overdoses of aspirin can cause major damage to the liver or heart or brain. In sufficient quantity, an overdose can be lethal.

"I didn't do it:' David said.

"I didn't do it:' Jason said.

"One of you had to have done it," Angela shouted. "The bottle was almost full. Now it's empty. Taking too much aspirin could make you very, very sick. Now, which one of you drank it?"

The combination of her anxiety and scare tactics had no useful effect. Both boys reiterated their claims of innocence; they both began to accuse the other of having done it!

Knowing that she needed to treat promptly whichever son had drunk the aspirin, Angela made both David and Jason swallow a dose of Ipecac syrup to induce vomiting. The pink coloration from the aspirin showed up only in the contents of Jason's stomach.

Doesn't have daddy

The limitations that we see in preschoolers' capacity to deal with perspective and with truth is even more evident in toddlers. Stanley Cath has written up a study of how one intelligent mother, who kept a journal, dealt over a period of years with her son's absent father. The woman and her husband divorced before Jeff was born, and while the father paid a few visits to his son in his first months of life, those visits had ceased entirely before Jeff was two years old; by that age, Jeff was able to articulate his awareness that he didn't have what most of his playmates had: a daddy.

Jeff: Where is my daddy? Why doesn't he stay here the way the other daddies do?

Mother: Because we are divorced, and he lives somewhere else.

Jeff: What is 'divorced' mean?

Mother: Sometimes when two people get married, they find out that they didn't love each other and would be happier living apart or being married to someone else. The divorce was between your father and myself, and you had nothing to do with it. Your father wants you to be very happy, just as I do.

Jeff: Does he live far away from here?

Mother: Not very far away, but he lives away from here.

Jeff: Where?

Mother: In an apartment.

Jeff: Will he come to see us?

Mother: No, we both thought that since we would be happier living apart, it would be better to start again. That is why I date, so we can find a man we will love, and who will love us. You can kind of pick your own daddy, won't that be fun?

Jeff: Did Karen (his cousin) and Janie (a neighbor's child) pick out their daddies?

Mother: No, but your other friend, Louise, can pick out her daddy because her parents are divorced, too.

Jeff raised the subject endlessly in what his mother referred to as the "father question hour:' His mother is, to a degree, cloaking the indifference of Jeff's biological father to his son, and slightly exaggerating the significance of Jeff's role in her choosing a new partner, though she is clear in her mind that a new partner would have to win Jeff's confidence (she relates with humor how Jeff drove one suitor away). With his two-year-old sense of concreteness, Jeff decided his father was living on the train tracks.

Eventually Jeff asked about living with his father: Why didn't he live with him? His mother answered: "Aren't you happy living with me?" She writes:

Then, pulling my emotions together for the time being, I added to that overly sensitive, guilt-ridden question of mine, 'Also, Jeff, your father works all day and mothers usually take care of the children.' Jeff said, 'I want to live with you, all of us together, I mean.' I would venture to say this conversation was not exactly my finest hour! Inside I was screaming (to myself). Here I was, left alone with the child, to explain why he can't see his father; left to make excuses. I knew I wouldn't hurt Jeff that badly to tell him that his father just couldn't care. And yet, I couldn't be a martyr, and take all the blame my son would most understandably place on me. I had to learn that nothing I could say would be the right thing, because Jeff was not in a right or normal situation. But I could say the wrong thing! Somehow, I had to find a middle ground where I could be honest with Jeff, without deliberately hurting him or his opinion of himself. I would try to have us live together with as little resentment as possible.

Honesty here has to take account of a dilemma: Jeff knows fully of his father's indifference to him, he will be wounded. But if he doesn't know of it, he will blame his mother for his father's absence because she is present and available to play his feelings against. She is subordinating what she decides to say about Jeff's father to the greater value of minimizing resentment between herself and her son. I like her statement that she is searching for a middle ground that contains honesty but other considerations as well.


Honesty among older children and adults is deeply influenced by their various motives in the same way that the toddler or preschooler is motivated to say what he thinks will please or to avoid saying what he thinks will displease. To avoid shame, for example, adolescents or adults addicted to alcohol or drugs may resolutely deny their problems in the face even of overwhelming evidence.

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