Playing With a Child's Trust Is Harmful

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Some time ago on the Self-Archeology Facebook page I posted an article called “The High Cost of Tiny Lies” by a neuroscientist Sam Harris. In it, the author talks about the horrors of lying to children. Specifically about a very popular YouTube challenge by Jimmy Kimmel, where he encourages his viewers to lie to their kids or prank them, film their reaction, and put it on YouTube. This is supposed to be funny. And the more scared, sad, hurt, and confused the child gets, the more hilarious it is to people (to the parents, to Jimmy Kimmel, and to his audience).

In this article, I will talk about the harm of playing with a child trust. I will also address a couple of common defenses of such behavior and talk about why this is amusing and appealing to people.

Not a Big Deal?

I personally never liked the phenomenon of playing with people’s trust or being played by others – both in my childhood and in adulthood. I remember how I was feeling as a child when my caregivers and other authority figures lied to me, or when my friends betrayed me, or when my classmates played pranks on me. It was very painful to me. It was not fun. I also remember other children’s reactions in similar situations. Even if sometimes it looked differently on the outside, I saw that on the inside they were feeling hurt. It wasn’t fun for them either. And by their behavior afterwards you could tell that it had a negative effect on them.... Also, as an adult – both in my personal and professional life – I've seen many examples of how a dysfunctional bond with a caregiver affects a person and influences their later life. Often a betrayed person suffers from the effects of it for a lifetime. And this is neither cute nor funny. It’s tragic and epidemic.

Lying to, or pranking, a person who is three-four times smaller than you, who is relatively new to this world and doesn’t have much knowledge about it, who is very vulnerable and initially trusts everything you say, and who is completely dependent on you to survive, IS NOT OK. It’s undoubtedly harmful to the child, therefore abusive. It’s NOT “not a big deal.” It has serious consequences regarding your self-esteem, trust in yourself and others, self-doubt, the perception of reality, and your overall functioning in the world.

Abuse is not funny. Pain is not funny. (I know, it’s funny to some people – we’ll get to that later.) It’s not fun or funny to the child – actually, it’s the opposite of that. In that moment, the child feels sad, hurt, confused, betrayed, scared, and humiliated. Only later he learns to minimize it by laughing along or mimic others’ reactions, or use some other learned technique as a reaction to a breach of trust.

There is a HUGE power disparity between a child and their caregiver or other authority figure. Lying or pranking threatens, or even breaks, the bond of trust. It makes the child feel insecure. If you’re a child and you can’t trust your caregiver, you are in danger, you feel unsafe – because you need your caregiver to survive in this world, they are in a position of power, and they are not trustworthy. It creates stress, doubt, and dysfunction. A strong, healthy bond with your caregiver is one of the most important things in a child’s development – both mentally and physically. Dysfunction in attachment and bonding stunts a child’s emotional and psychological growth and, as mentioned, leads to various problems in later life.

It’s Only X

“It’s only X / it’s not important” is a common argument that is filled with ignorance and narcissism. It’s only a toy, a candy, a game, or a play, i.e., a thing or preference that is important to the child, but not important to the person making this claim. It may not be very significant to you, but it is important to a child. Children are human beings. They have their own needs, preferences, emotions, and interests – and they are as important as those of an adult. By saying that X shouldn’t be important to the child you are overriding the child’s emotions and preferences. This is unfair, devaluing, demeaning, hurtful, and confusing to the child.

It’s For Your Own Good

This argument is also very common. “A child has to learn how to take a joke.” “A child has to learn not to trust everyone.” “A child has to be prepared for the real world.” “A child should toughen up, because the world is tough.” These and similar arguments are not specific to lying; they are often used by various kinds of abusers and apologists to justify inappropriate behavior.

I’m doing this for your own good. I’m lying to you because you need to learn about trust. I’m lying to you because I want you to be happier. I’m beating you because you have to learn what’s good and bad. I’m molesting you because you have to learn what love and sex is. I’m taking away your property because you have to learn what respect is. And so on. Now, clearly these arguments are false, contradictory, and manipulative. But the main theme here is this: I’m doing it FOR YOU; I CARE about you, and this is FOR YOUR OWN GOOD. While in fact it’s the other way around – it’s all about the person who has more power. That’s what’s so disgusting about it. To a child and coming from an authority figure, this is very consequential, hurtful, confusing, and devaluing.

Imagine saying to a person, “I broke your legs because you need to learn about pain. Also, the rehabilitation process will make your legs stronger, and as a result you will become stronger. It’s for your own good.” Even if in some cases it were possible that eventually this might result in having stronger legs, most people would probably agree that such an argument is absurd. So why do we think that it make sense in a context of spanking assaulting, or lying to, or manipulating children, or harming them in numerous other ways?

Actually, often people defend their abusers by saying exactly the same thing, “My parents – or other authority figures – did X to me, and it made me stronger; it was for my own good.” This is a learned and internalized defense against unpleasant thoughts or memories that is often used as an ex post facto justification.

Why People Find Lying and Pranking Amusing

This question is twofold. First, why do adults find threatening a child’s trust to be amusing and appealing? And second, why do adults find playing with other adults’ trust fun and appealing? These videos where children are lied to, humiliated, betrayed, and exposed on the Jimmy Kimmel show are very popular. (Being shown on TV and the Internet only adds to the initial humiliation and betrayal of a child.) Shows like “Jackass,” “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and similar videos on the Internet, where people deliberately or accidentally hurt and humiliate themselves or others, are extremely popular. Why?

To my observation, people who enjoy playing with others' trust and confusing others didn't have a trusting relationship with their parents and other authority figures. People who laugh at pain or find it amusing are desensitized and lack genuine empathy – for themselves, and therefore by extension for others.

Tricking others, pranking, or lying to them is an attempt to minimize and normalize their caregivers’ dysfunctional behavior and the unstable trust and confusion they felt when they were children. It’s a way to act out your painful childhood experiences. You inevitably act out that what is unprocessed. A relationship with a child is a particularly advantageous environment for that. It’s a vicious circle – and it is unfair to the innocent children. Instead of breaking a child’s psyche, break the cycle.

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1 comments

  1. Wow, no comments? What a shame! This message is essential to get out there. It is never acceptable to betray a child nor an adult. Too many kids are raised thinking that betrayal is NORMAL. How horrid! I do all that I can to teach kids in 1 on 1 settings that the pain of another is JUST as important of the pain of ourselves. If you would feel sad, they will feel sad so CHOOSE not to inflict that pain. But they seek approval- from the bullies (ie authority figures). So I have to balance that with ways that they can seek approval from me. I give approval for communication, cooperation, identifying needs, and empathy. Kids need to be raised that IQ is JUST as important as EQ. (That's my life's goal!) ^_^

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