The Lies We Tell Our Children

There is a whole set of lies that our culture has been systematically telling its children for some time now.  We tell them that they are especially beautiful and especially smart and especially talented.  We tell them that they can be anything they want to be, that they can do anything they put their minds to do.  We tell them that they are extraordinary, that they will do extraordinary things.  And, generally speaking, far more often than not, this is nothing but lies.

However beautiful and intelligent and talented they may be, there will almost always be those who have more beauty and more intelligence and more talent, and none of these things will guarantee them success in any case.  However much they may put their minds to it, there are some things that they will just not be able to be or do.  However much they may believe themselves to be extraordinary, they will almost certainly come up against the fact that they are as ordinary as the next person, better at some things, worse at others, individual and valuable perhaps, but not exceptional.  They will come up against the fact that their entire conception of themselves has been based on lies told by their parents and family and teachers and counselors and so on.

Now, we tell them these lies out of the best intentions.  We want our children to have good self-esteem, to believe in themselves, to have the confidence to pursue their dreams, but we end up doing exactly the opposite.  Our lies give children a grossly unrealistic conception of themselves, and this self-conception begins to disintegrate when they are exposed to a wider world where others are in fact as beautiful and intelligent and talented as they are.  They are confronted by the fact that they are not naturally superior to their peers and that they have not developed the disciplines they need to succeed in the world because  even their poorest efforts  had always been called exceptional, had not required work or effort or discipline or commitment from them.  Confronted with this new reality, their self-image is shattered, and they alternate between depression and bravado, between accepting that they are not in fact exceptional and insisting that their true superiority has gone unrecognized.  They are trapped in this alternation, immobilized, unable to commit to any direction enough to do the work it would require of them, waiting for the greatness that has been promised them.  They cannot be the best, so they will be nothing at all.

There is now the greater part of a generation who occupy this position, a generation who have never been able to face the truth about themselves.  There is nothing less acceptable to them than an ordinary life, and they are unwilling to live this ordinary life, though it is the life that they will have to live, one way or another.  They came of age in a barrage of superlatives, and any life that is not superlative must be a failure to them, and so they live mostly with failure, still striving to deny this failure at every turn.  They keep insisting on the lies that they have been told, keep ignoring the base facts of their lives, keep hoping that their destiny will somehow, miraculously, reassert itself.

They have never been told the truth, that there is no shame in living an ordinary life, in doing ordinary good, in overcoming ordinary evil, in accomplishing ordinary things, just as countless lives have been lived before them.  They have never been told the truth, that it is no great failure to fall short of wealth and fame, that it is a far greater failure to fall short of being a moral human being.  They have never been told the truth, that the best lived life is one spent, not in exceptional things, but in ordinary things, in being a loving child, spouse, parent, friend, and neighbour.  They have never been told the truth, that the life spent serving others brings more joy than the life spent in pursuit of one’s own pleasures and successes.

We must speak truthfully to our children.  We must tell them that their value does not depend on their beauty or their intelligence or their talent or their success or their superiority to others, but in the love that they might offer to one another, which is their very humanity.  We must praise them when they have done well, certainly, but we must also correct them when they have done wrong and encourage them when they have failed.  We must teach them that there is nothing so very ordinary about living the ordinary life, that this is indeed a life worth living, as complex and as full and as rewarding as any other they might choose to live.

  1. Lauren said:

    Mike and I talked about this issue a lot back when we used to watch American Idol. There were some truly talentless people who were shockingly indignant to be rejected from the show, and 9 times out of 10 they said “I AM TALENTED! My parents/friends/teachers TOLD ME SO!” We always felt that these poor terrible singers had been done a great disservice by people who probably thought they were doing the right thing by encouraging them.

    I liked what you said about there being value in living an ordinary life. My younger sister has really struggled in her education and career because she has in her mind that she is destined for a really glamourous life, and she gets easily derailed by the idea that a) it’s not likely to happen, or b) if she wants it to happen, she’s going to have to work really hard to obtain it.

    It’s frustrating to watch, because she’s smart and talented and clever and would be really great at being really ordinary at the things she loves, but she’s constantly dissatisfied and spends a lot of time floating around unfettered as a result of this very specific image she has in her mind of the life she feels she’s supposed to be leading.

  2. Lauren,

    I am unsure how I feel about bringing American Idol into the conversation, but this is essentially what I am arguing. There can only be one winner. Almost everyone loses, even the very talented, and all the losers believe that they should have been the ones to win, because they have always been told so, and they stand around wringing their hands, wondering what they will do, all because they lost but are still unwilling to walk away from the game.

  3. Katerina said:

    This is word for word my existence.

  4. John Jantunen said:


    I am currently reading the Wayfinders by Wade Davis and I think much of what he has to say about our collective ancestors could apply to your argument. The ordinary of which you speak, is that which is around us everyday and is made to seem ordinary only by its familiarity. Hunters and Gatherer cultures, of whom Davis speaks, too were (and are) surrounded by a world made ordinary by its familiarity the same as us but many, by listening, by watching and by challenging themselves as inhabitants of their world, created something extraordinary. Some did it by leaving home, it is true, to seek their place in the world beyond the fires of their hearth but often in doing so their display of courage brought more than the vain pride we parents are meant to feel at a child’s success: It brought a sense of accomplishment for the whole community. One child, for them, was not apart from the whole, isolated through his or her aspirations, but a part of the whole so that it must always be the totality which is raised up by the actions of the individual. I can think of a few instances where this has happened in our culture (the moon landing, perhaps) but then it occurs, inevitabley, that our collective success quickly degenerates into a scramble to be the next Neil Armstrong, which begets the next Wayne Gretzky, which in turn begets the next Miley Cyrus. I have yet to reach Wade’s conclusion regarding what we have to learn from Ancient Civilisations (which forms the subtitle of the book) but I can make a few guesses, with a nod to John Raulston Saul (and you): Look around more at the world you live in, and not the one projected at you, find the extraordinary in the ordinary and attune your dreams so that they may show you the way to bridge the gap between the two. I do think, Luke, you are right, the Lost Generation of which Hemmingway wrote has finally found its match in both ours and the one that followed, but there is always the next, and the next after that. May we teach them to be truly great so that we are all made better by them.

  5. d said:

    A successful poker player knows to fold on almost every hand.

  6. Curtis said:

    Interesting querry: How much do you think this idea might be founded in the divine right of empires, or peoples? How much do you think this is based in parental failure, refurbishing itself to somehow create a purpose out of absurdity- a sociopathy of sorts? You know, we’re part of the English people, we’re part of the American people, we’re part of the German people, we’re part of the New World of Opportunity- which in the end only amounts to the vain glory of becoming either literal or psychological cannon fodder at the feet of an empire?

  7. Curtis said:

    What I mean is that, in the face that something about their lineage, or self flattery, or circumstances might be chosen, to the universal principal that greatness in the ‘selection’ creates a casualty of many human beings- like, ‘The German people are great, we are all great Germans, and that greatness leads to the resounding glory of getting blown to bits’, and this can be convinced upon you as being great. Without universally encapsulating war pressing down on us, does the idea of greatness and empire require that it delude it’s subjects into that kind of psychological uselessness in order to persist the illusion?

  8. Curtis,

    I think this has very little to do with feelings of national, cultural, or social superiority. Quite the opposite, I feel that it has to do with a kind of hyper-individualism, where people’s value has to do strictly with their individual success as measured by fame, wealth, prestige, possessions and so forth.

  9. Curtis said:

    You don’t think it has some basis in ‘We the [whomever people] shall, by righteous might, prevail to absolute victory!’? The biggest criticism I have encountered, as part of this struggling generation, and from observing people’s criticisms of others, who can’t seem to cope with failure or circumstances, is that, by no longer aspiring to their personal ascension to fame, wealth prestige etc., even simply a house a car and a nine to five shift; they are not contributing to society, and hence detracting from their critics’ ability to achieve those things and more by for themselves with these people’s drain on taxes and economy, even health care.

    I have also noticed and experienced the distancing of reputation that takes place when people discover you are unemployed, have made perhaps, decisions that would appear or be asserted as ‘failure’, which you are rejected for at the saving of social face. Even in the face of sickness, in fact, sometimes because of sickness it seems to be met with a fiercer fervor- as though this is a plague that might infect us all.

    I am willing to accept the notion that this might be a poor response of people who wish to remain healthy in the face of what I would describe and a very enclaved delusion or observation- and maybe it’s their inability to respond to or describe their inability to understand. I observe that there is a certain amount of Smithian economy, ‘Doing the best for yourself is what is best for all’, which has created both sober and drunk minds in the full spectrum. The problem might actually be very real though. There is something in the softness of wanting to ascend rather than know one’s place, which, produces a reality which doesn’t jive with the brutish, though united, tribal/clan mentality- in essence, it’s not even as vile as communism, it’s lower than, sort of thinking.

    The largest observations I can notice, are something along the lines of poeple being offended for the sake that a few people think themselves ‘ought to be kings’ and that others are indignant towards this thought- as if to be Camusian about it, ‘they think you are lauding yourself with praise, rather than ceasing to fight your bile, so that we can pitty you as one of our own’ and be comfy knowing we are all in this together. While the other group repsonds with what Tolstoy would call the ‘writer’s religion’, ‘as though we are the heart and soul of society, thinking the highest necessary thoughts that dwarves cannot think, and that the world needs us, when really we do next to nothing at all and are proselytizing to ourselves an empty purpose, viewed as a critical heart beat.’ In the end, it is only the writer’s who evangelise themselves into a dependent oblivion.

  10. Curtis said:

    It would be the very reality that they though they were what was best for Russia, but were slaughtering it, and yet it was the insanity of Russia that was creating them! Please do debunk me if I don’t have a case.

  11. Curtis said:

    Sorry to insist further, but isn’t this also part of the mass dissolution created by the ‘government parent’ teaching their populace in one direction, to then be completely hampered in explaing and dealing with Vietnam?

  12. Curtis,

    I am unclear on most of what you have just said, but with respect to your comments about illness, I will say that sickness is another way that we create false self-image through superlatives. We tell people that they are so sick, so ill, so marginalized, so discriminated against that their failure is inevitable and they are therefore deserving of special help and attention. Rather than being so special and so unique that they almost have to succeed, we tell them that they are so special and so unique that they almost have to fail and that they therefore have some special claim to the sympathy and charity of others. The reality, however, is that sickness and discrimination do not make us unique any more than talent and beauty do. There are always others who are more ill and more marginalized than we are, and so even our sicknesses fail to secure us what we think we deserve, in exactly the same way that our talents fail, and the result is the same: we are immobilized. We are too ill to get what we want and yet not ill enough to get the sympathy we think we deserve. The terms have perhaps changed, but the game remains the same.

  13. Curtis said:

    How is it unclear what I have said- it’s plain as day- people respond to anomalies with the idea that they impede their ability to be great. How is that hard to read?

  14. Curtis said:

    And they do so on a community level.

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