July 9, 2007

Lying Babies?

Category: Family :: Permalink

An article in the July 1 issue of The Telegraph, a British newspaper, reports on a study by Dr. Vasudevi Reddy, who is in the University of Portsmouth’s psychology department.  Her findings are based on her study of more than fifty children and on interviews with parents.

One of her findings was that babies as young as six months old lie to their parents by pretending to cry or to laugh in order to get attention from them.  Reddy says:

Fake crying is one of the earliest forms of deception to emerge, and infants use it to get attention even though nothing is wrong. You can tell, as they will then pause while they wait to hear if their mother is responding, before crying again.  It demonstrates they’re clearly able to distinguish that what they are doing will have an effect. This is essentially all adults do when they tell lies, except in adults it becomes more morally loaded.

On at least two blogs, the Triablogue and the Riddleblog, this article is cited in connection with original sin.  “See?” these bloggers say.  “Psychological studies are only now catching up to what we knew all along from the Bible.”

Now I don’t deny that children lie or that “those who speak lies go astray from birth” (Ps. 58:3).  But I wonder about the validity of this study.  Reddy says that infants as young as six months old practice fake crying “to get attention even though nothing is wrong.”  But who says nothing is wrong?  Reddy?  The parents she interviewed?

Perhaps she concludes that nothing is wrong because the child will cry a bit and then stop to see if the parents are responding.  But does that confirm that nothing is really wrong?  Perhaps all it confirms is that the child is hoping for a response.  If the parents don’t respond, the baby will cry some more.  But if you ignore a baby long enough, eventually it will lapse into silence.  (But what a terrible thing to do to a baby!  Why would you want to teach a baby that its cries will go unheard, that Mom and Dad’s ears aren’t open when their children cry?)

In fact, if a baby is crying because it wants the parents to respond, then I’d be inclined to say that something is wrong.  The baby is lonely.  The baby wants cuddling and love.  It feels a lack in its life, and so it cries.  I see no evidence that the cry is itself deceptive, that the baby is actually feeling great and senses no lack at all and is perfectly happy but decides to cry anyway in order to deceive the parents into giving it attention.

How much more, then, with laughter?  If a child laughs, how could one possibly prove that the child laughed in order to get attention, not because it was happy?  And why not both?  If you read something funny and you laugh out loud, not only because you enjoy what you’re reading but also because you hope your wife will ask what’s so funny and you’ll be able to read it aloud to her, is your laughter a lie?  I’m not convinced.  But even if it is, how could you ever prove that that’s what the six-month old baby is doing when he laughs?

Or take coughing.  When my daughter was very young, I had a cough.  I was sitting in the car, coughing intermittently, while I waited for Moriah to come back from shopping.  Suddenly I heard a cough in the backseat.  Aletheia wasn’t sick.  She was just mimicking me.  Was she lying?  Was she pretending to be sick in order to deceive me into giving her attention?  I don’t think so.  I think she was mimicking me because she had just learned to make that sound and because mimicking adults is both fun and, judging by her reactions, funny (or maybe Aletheia only pretends to laugh in order to manipulate me, if you believe some studies).

Again, I’m not suggesting that infants are incapable of sin.  I am suggesting that whatever sin they’re capable of isn’t as easy to detect as this article indicates.  And I’m concerned about the effects of an application of the doctrine of original sin via this study to our children.  That is, I’m concerned that parents, motivated by a confession of original sin and hearing that children cry or laugh in order to deceive, may fail to respond to their babies when they laugh or, perhaps worse, when they cry (“He’s just crying.  He’s exercising his lungs.  He’s trying to deceive and manipulate me.  Nothing’s really wrong”).

For more on the story, see this article, which quotes Reddy as defining “fake” crying as something more “calculated” than the usual cries of distress.  She backs that definition up with an example from a mother who thought the crying sounded “put on” and noticed that the child would pause in crying “which seemed rather like waiting to see if it worked.”  That all sounds remarkably subjective to me and may reflect the beliefs the mother already had.  That is, if the mother already believed that her child’s cries were “put on,” then the fact that the child is quiet sometimes constitutes “proof” of what the mother already thinks.

In this blog entry, however, it sounds as if the data Reddy is considering includes “a variety of acts, such as teasing, pretending, distracting and concealing, which are not typically considered in relation to human deception….  Infants and toddlers seem to be able to communicate false information (about themselves, about shared meanings and about events) as early as true information.”

If that’s the kind of data that Reddy is considering, then, while it’s true that infants can communicate false information (e.g., my daughter’s coughing isn’t the result of a cold), their doing so doesn’t really constitute (sinful) deception.  There’s nothing sinful about pretending.  In fact, I’ve encouraged my daughter to communicate such “false information,” by pretending with her.  I’m not really a monster who’s going to eat her up.  I’m not really a horse that she can ride.  She isn’t really a carpenter, even though she has a hammer.  And so forth.  But no one considers “false information” of this sort to be sinful deception.

Perhaps, then, the reports about this article aren’t reflecting exactly what Reddy has been studying.  Reddy herself has not said that the “deception” she’s talking about is bad, and so it may simply be that some Christians are drawing the wrong conclusions from her study.

Still, I’m concerned about parents who hear about Reddy’s study and who think about it in light of the church’s confession concerning original sin and who then regard their children’s communication with suspicion (“Is she manipulating me?  Deceiving me?  Is this just fake crying?”).  That’s not only an abuse of the doctrine of original sin; it’s also a failure to love, just as it would be if I regarded everything my wife says with suspicion because, after all, she’s been tainted by original sin, too.  Love thinks no evil, believes all things, hopes all things.

Posted by John Barach @ 6:14 pm | Discuss (4)

4 Responses to “Lying Babies?”

  1. kristen Says:

    Thanks for your comments on this. I agree completely. I have been really disappointed, honestly, by the churches grasp on child development at times. I’ve seen parents consistently identify any behavior they don’t like as sinful or manipulative instead of having the insight to step back and say, “Why did God make my infant to be this way? So I can train them into sanctification or so they can train ME to be less selfish and more sacrificial and aid in MY sanctification?”

  2. Paul Baxter Says:

    Thanks for sharing the article and your thoughts on it. I think you are quite right that “lying” is not really the proper term. It does sound something like “proto-lying” though. Any such behaviors (things which would certainly lead to sinful adult behaviors if further developed) are good opportunities for parents to practice their skills. Some cries should be answered, some should be ignored. Some behaviors should be praised, some scolded, etc.

  3. John Barach Says:

    Sure, Paul, I agree that parents ought to watch the behavior of their children to see what might grow into sins.

    For instance, a baby who has just learned to crawl isn’t sinning when you call him to come to you and he goes the other way.

    A somewhat older child who does that may not be sinning but may just be playing, getting you to chase her, and sometimes that’s fine. But in other cases, it isn’t fine and your daughter needs to know that when you call her she is to come and it’s disobedience not to.

    Now because you want your daughter to come when you call, you start teaching your little baby who is barely able to crawl that when you say “Come here” she is to come. But you don’t treat it as a sin.

    So too with other behavior, it seems to me, including some of the behavior that’s getting termed “deception” in reports of this study. There’s nothing wrong with pretending. There isn’t necessarily something wrong with teasing. False information itself isn’t necessarily lying.

    But in all these areas, kids do need to be watched, not because they’re sinning right now but because you don’t want them to grow up to sin.

    On the other hand, I’m not persuaded that “fake crying” exists. In older kids, yes. But in six-month-olds? I don’t know. I think babies cry because they feel a lack, and I tend to think parents dub it “fake crying” because the parents don’t feel like filling that lack. Hence the popularity of “cry it out” methods of getting babies to fall asleep.

    So I’d be inclined to say that for babies, all cries should be answered and that it’s wrong for parents to view their children’s cries with suspicion or to regard their babies as little lying manipulators.

  4. Paul Baxter Says:

    I agree almost completely. “Fake crying” does seem like a troubled term.

    One situation where one could consider not answering a cry is crying due to tiredness. Some children require a certain amount of training/practice in going to sleep on their own.

    In general many children resist, at various times and various ways, responsible independence. Some child raising experts, John Rosemond for one, think that preparing children for independence is what parenting is all about. This often means letting the children deal with certain situations “on their own”.

    Obviously this requires wisdom as to times and methods, etc.

    BTW, a fascinating film on the subject of parenting is a Russian film called The Return.

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