The current political climate has many of us dizzy sorting out, “What’s a lie?” “What’s not?” And helping our kids distinguish between lies, falsehoods, and alternative facts is now yet another unprecedented parenting challenge in modern society. We no longer have the grandfatherly wisdom of a Walter Cronkite to rely on and believe in—although Peter Mansbridge on CBC’s The National, remains steadfast and trustworthy—thankfully.
But overall in the U.S. mass media is in a muddied mess—with news programs offering their own biased versions of reality sometimes, but not always, bringing inconsistency and a need for hyper-vigilance. Journalists now feel they need to clarify whether or not a particular statement made by a political figure is a lie or not. It seems to be taking more stamina and sources than ever to sort out what is current reality, making complex what used to be taken for granted.
It’s gotten so bad that two University of Washington professors are teaching a new course this spring: “Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data.” Within hours of unveiling its website and announcing the class on Twitter, it went viral, with hundreds of questions, comments from all over the world. “The responses has been insane,” said Jevin West, one of the professors who developed it.
Which goes to show a massive yearning exists for clarity between media lies, falsehoods, and alternative facts.
It’s interesting to note that the New York Times recently made an effort to reassure us: “With 1,000 journalists doing the research for you, you know what you read here can be trusted.”
(Nice to know, but is that indeed a fact?)
“Question everything” my father used to admonish us kids. “How do you know that?” was one of his favorite questions. And to his credit, he always waited patiently while we hemmed and hawed and gave less than stellar back-ups. He quietly accepted what we said, smiled knowingly and added, “Now give that a bit more consideration.” Even with our limited kid-minds, we came to know more about the subject at hand, and at the same time humbled, realizing there may be more to learn. And to have the final word we would refer to our Encyclopedia Britannica, pulling the apt volume off the shelf, laying the heavy book on the floor, and finding a fact, immediately verifiable, “because the encyclopedia says it is so.”
Gone are those days! And while search engines offer information, parents quickly find out that Google isn’t a library—no knowledgeable librarians filter information for appropriateness in cyberspace. The age of information confuses even adults and can impact older kids and teens profoundly. And it’s not just finding the right and accurate information that’s at stake.
How do 8-11 year olds, who are going through a period of forming and internalizing their personal values, know today what is really meaningful? And what about the 12-15 year olds whose brains are being transformed by adolescence, and are being challenged to radically transform their sense of identity? And how about the 16-18 year olds whose brains are ready for a significant boost in critical thinking processing?
And how do any of them come to trust the world they live in to deliver what they need to know to live as informed and active citizens?
While the current outlook looks bleak, I believe parents can use today’s confusion as a golden opportunity to help develop new levels of discernment, helping to immunize kids from dangerous mass manipulation. Consider these three steps
Step 1: Determine and Embrace What We Value
Most of us have an implicit moral compass in place to guide how we relate to others. For instance, in our business dealings, it is necessary to confront falsehoods and come to agreement as to what the relevant facts are in order to define any contractual obligation. If lies enter into written agreements, we move into the arena of fraud. If they become part of our verbal agreements, we soon don’t have anyone to work with.
In our personal relationships, obviously, it is paramount that we confront and resolve falsehoods for mutual trust and support. And, really, there is nothing more corrosive to personal relationships than lies that are introduced to deceive and manipulate another person.
How then, do we deal with political and economic falsehoods that often become lies to deceive and manipulate? Do we, as critically thinking, mature adults confront these issues and work together with other critically thinking, mature adults to resolve them as best we can? Or do we ignore them, hoping the situation will just go away?
Robert Quinn, in his book Change the World, talks about “embracing the hypocritical self.” Quite simply, getting to know, understand, and actually embrace the parts of our self that shy away from the effort of practicing what we preach. Untangling the jumble of lies, falsehoods, and alternative facts requires consistent and diligent effort. We cannot guide our children along this pathway if we are not willing to make the effort to walk it ourselves.
The first step, then, is to seriously determine and embrace what we value. How important is it to me that I know the difference between a lie and a falsehood? How much relevance do I give to facts? Do I believe there can be “alternative facts?” How much effort do I choose to invest in developing a factual relationship to those who are close to and/or important to me? How much effort am I willing to spend in developing a factual relationship with the world that I live in? Is this something that I value, or is it just something that is nice to have if it is convenient?
Step Two: Clarify Important Distinctions
How do we, as parents, guide our children through this semantic and moral swamp to the firm ground of a reality in which there can be fulfillment in their personal relationships, and productive caretaking of their world?
Some important distinctions to guide a family discussion on this topic might include the following:
A fact is a statement about observable or measurable reality that can be independently verified by different people. “You are in the 5th grade.”
A falsehood is a statement that is demonstrably not true. “The average American man is 10 feet tall.” A person who believes this statement is true may do so out of ignorance. Or he may have seen a 10-foot tall man at a circus and does not know what the word, “average” means. A falsehood is contrary to an observable or measurable fact. Reference to the fact and its context will determine if the statement is true or false.
A lie is a falsehood that is knowingly stated as being true, for the purpose of deceiving or manipulating another person’s beliefs and actions. To say that someone told a lie is to impute motive to the statement; it was not done just out of ignorance. There is an intentional malfeasance involved to blow you off course from the facts.
And it’s important that kids know: there is no such thing as an alternative fact. There can be, and most often are, alternative interpretations and theories about the facts. But a fact is an observable or measurable aspect of shared reality that is independently verifiable. To say there are alternative facts is to state a lie about our shared reality.
Step Three: Engage Kids in Daily Fact-Finding and Fact Verification
OK, now with these important distinctions, in mind (or written on a poster so ever present/ever visible to the kids) challenge everyone in the family to spot them, read about them and discuss them. You might want to record a brief interview of a reporter, political figure or spokesperson, discussing lies, falsehoods, and alternative facts. In this way, you will have a context for a productive discussion with your kids. And context is everything for critical understanding.
Then take some of these “facts” and engage your child in the daily act of fact-verification from reputable journalistic sources.
Keep in mind the developmental stage of your child/ren in this process. The younger the child, the more impressionable she will be and the less likely to ask pertinent questions. But with your question, “How do you know that?” you spur a discernment process no matter what age. Some other questions to ask:
- Why do you trust this journalistic source? What evidence do you have that they have been reputable in the past?
- How did verifying this fact change the way you think about ___________?
- How will you determine if a person is knowingly telling you a lie?
Their responses will reflect their developing minds and give you a wide-open window into how they are thinking. This is indeed the gold mine that can be taped with lots of practice. Your child needs you to be asking these questions and discussing his answers. The world that we grew up in no longer exists. It has changed irrevocably. Without thoughtful discernment skills, your child is left adrift, vulnerable to rhetorical manipulation, at risk to be controlled by others’ lies.
With a family focus on these three steps, kids and parents co-create a new, healthier relationship to the media, to each other, and to our world.
And for the record: I believe that to be a verifiable fact!