Which truth?

On children’s natural nose for lies.

Bill Ayers

March 29, 2024

A response to The Harper Review’s spring 2024 proposition, “We should tell children the truth.”

Dear editors,

Should we tell children the truth? Maybe we should. Or maybe not.

In 1993 the comic artist Art Spiegelman is strolling with Maurice Sendak, the legendary children’s book author-illustrator. He’s surprised to learn that Sendak’s next book would be for grownups. “Kid books… grownup books… that’s just marketing,” Sendak says. “Books are books.”

Art’s not so sure, noting than when adults give kids Maus, his classic Holocaust comic, he thinks it’s child abuse.

“Art—you can’t protect kids… they know everything! Sendak says.

People say, ‘Oh, Mr. Sendak, I wish I were in touch with my childhood self, like you!’ as if it were all quaint and succulent, like Peter Pan. 

“Childhood is cannibals and psychotics vomiting in your mouth. 

“I say, ‘You are in touch, lady—you’re mean to your kids, you treat your husband like shit, you lie, you’re selfish… That is your childhood self.’ 

“In reality childhood is deep and rich. It’s vital, mysterious, and profound. 

“I remember my own childhood vividly… I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew… It would scare them.”

If you’re responsible for raising or teaching children—those unruly sparks of meaning-making energy, each on an immense journey of discovery and surprise—and if you want them to grow up with curiosity, courage, and agency, it makes sense to look deeply into what we know about how and generally when kids develop a sense of basic trust and then autonomy, of initiative and industry, of identity and intimacy. This look won’t answer the question of truth-telling, but it will offer suggestions.

It’s a fact that everyone is mortal—we will all die—but it feels unnecessarily cruel to draw up lesson plans for kindergarteners hammering home an undeniable truth—your mom is going to die.

Is there a Santa Claus? An Easter Bunny? Is it “going to be alright”? What’s the point of truth-telling?

Should black parents have “the talk” about encounters with cops? Tamir Rice was twelve years old when he was killed; Clifford Glover was ten.

Truth is tricky at any age—the truth, always elusive.

There’s an aspect of truth we might call “forensic”: this cup of coffee is viable and verifiable, but that’s not the end of truth’s possibilities. There’s individual narrative truth—this is the best cup of coffee ever, I made it myself with subtle artistry—and also dialogic truth as I argue back and forth with friends about the merits of this cup, and then bring into view the farmers who grew the beans, the workers who harvested them, the recent clashes between the landlords and the peasants who were organizing a farm-workers union. We might then consider restorative truth: the kinds of things that might be involved in recognizing and accounting for the contested realm of history and culture and politics, all the labor as well as the many dimensions of meaning-making worked up in this coffee. This invites new learning—more muscular and hopeful, but not the end of anything either. There’s always more truth to discover.

We’re now awash in a culture of untruth. Kids know it. Long before stolen elections, alternate facts, and weaponized disinformation parading under the banner of free speech, there was advertising—a many-billion-dollar scam. The advertising industry, commercial prevarication on an industrial scale, wraps its rapacious claws tightly around our children’s minds while singing siren songs on a continuous loop into their innocent ears. We’re accustomed to having upward of four hundred lies a day, dressed in bright colors and happy talk, splash over us in a steady stream. 

And, of course, governments lie—some governments lie all the time, and all governments lie some of the time. When ours was caught in its most egregious lies recently, it responded with neither apology nor contrition, and instead went on the attack—just ask Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, John Kiriakou, or any of the brave people who blew the whistle and paid the price. And, of course, the kids are watching.

Even scientific facts, in a wholly different register, are unstable and in need of continual revision. The scientific enterprise is built on challenging, disproving, rethinking, and revising. Evidence is marshaled to show the inadequacy of what we once held to be true—this is the dynamic, unsettling, never-ending search for the puzzling, often ambiguous, and yet necessary truth.

A friend told me recently that she’d read her four-year-old a children’s book about Native grandmothers organizing a struggle to stop an oil pipeline from being built on tribal land. The pipeline would destroy valuable wildlife habitat, spoil farmland, endanger water sources, and add to the crisis of global warming and environmental collapse. What stood out for the child was the wisdom and courage of the old women, and so the child wanted to make a sign in solidarity. “And what would your sign say?” Mom asked. The response was quick and sharp: “No Pipeline!” A natural abolitionist living in the concrete operational world of toddlers. The moral position unencumbered—no pipeline! No need to consider alternate routes that would endanger different rivers, or financial compensation for ruined land, or the relative value of an endangered owl and cheaper gas from tar sands. 

Of course, the pipeline book could be seen as truth-telling or propaganda. On the other hand, the American Coal Foundation, a now-defunct branch of the industry’s lobbying arm, lavishly funded “educational materials” like a colorful classroom map called “The United States of Energy.” The climate advocacy group Friends of the Earth called it unabashed “corporate brainwashing.”

That’s the truth.


Bill Ayers

Bill Ayers is an activist and retired professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.