The media have had a field day with Brian Williams and his embellishment of his helicopter experience in Iraq. For many, his story of having been on a helicopter that was shot down, rather than on the one that followed some time later was not an embellishment but an outright lie. His claim of having “conflated” the two was labeled a weak apology and harshly criticized.
The event has also given rise to a discussion of false memory as an alternative explanation to that of deliberate deception on Williams’ part. Experts on memory remind us that memory is not that reliable. Our memories often fade or become altered without our realization. But also, false memories can be implanted so deeply that one can be convinced that they really happened.
There are countless examples of eye witnesses to events giving contradictory statements about what happened, all swearing to the accuracy of their memories. Children are not considered reliable witnesses after numerous court cases that demonstrated the way false memories could be implanted, particularly by the way in which children were questioned. There have been other examples of adults claiming that various things happened to them as children which have been challenged as false memories.
What is most interesting, however, is the anger that has been aroused by this current event. For some, the anger is due to the war context in which so many are in real danger. Others explain the anger as in reality an expression of the pleasure taken when the famous fall or fail. But in general, there was a great demand that there be a severe consequence for the “lie”.
This brings to mind the reaction that parents often have when children seem to lie. Parents at times have a strong reaction when a child seems not to be telling the truth and can become invested in having the child confess, or admit he is lying. The reaction seems out of proportion to the event, as though some moral failing on the part of the child is involved.
In fact, all children tell lies in the course of their development. Young children have no clear idea of where truth begins and ends. They have a shaky grasp of the difference between reality, wishes, fantasies and fears. When a two year old having separation anxiety insists there is a monster in the closet he really believes it is there. Children also have great imagination and express many of their wishes and fears in stories they tell about things that in fact did not happen.
Of course, we all know that children deny having done things they’re not supposed to do, or blame someone else for a misdeed. The wish is strong to avoid disapproval but also to present oneself as “good.” Learning to take responsibility for your behavior is part of the maturational process. Children do not experience themselves as lying in the adult meaning of the word.
Besides, we as adults bear some responsibility for children’s confusion about truth and lies. We want children to believe in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. Children hear us asking another family member to say we are not available in order to avoid talking on the phone or doing something else we don’t want to do. We want them to understand if we say something untrue to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, or sound critical if they say something that is true but perhaps embarrassing to us.
Children lie at times as a reaction to parents’ pattern of response to untruths in the past. When parents are judgmental or punitive, responding as if to a criminal offense, children may feel a need to protect themselves, especially when the whole concept of lying is not that clear to them. As in other areas of development, truth telling requires a process of education rather than consequences. It is possible to show children that we understand why they have said something untrue without approving of their having said it.
Perhaps the strong reaction to lies from a public figure reflects the old childhood struggle of learning to tell the truth – even when it hurts.