Giving children the 'facts'

A few days ago I was writing here of the folly of allowing children to make important decisions about their long term future, arguing that it is far better if adults make decisions on their children's behalf. Several people commented, telling me that they felt that children should be 'given the facts' and allowed to make their own choices. This is such a grotesque idea that I couldn't help chuckling out loud. Giving children the facts! As if any parent ever does such a thing.

The topic under discussion was of course education and the taking of examinations, but the principle is the same whatever 'facts' we are supposedly giving children in order for them to come to their own decision. Whether the subject is further education, racism, health, nuclear power, homophobia or vegetarianism; the last thing any parent supplies or intends to supply are plain facts. Let us take one example and look at it in detail. We won't use education, because I always manage to annoy somebody when I write about this. Perhaps, I had better steer clear of racism and homophobia as well. Let's look at something upon which every parent in the country would agree; the undesirability of our children taking up smoking.

Now there are many reasons why we don't want our children to start smoking, but the chief one is that we don't want them to develop lung cancer. Of course there are many other problems associated with smoking, ranging from bad breath to Buerger's Disease, but without doubt the main fear is of our child dying of cancer as a consequence of cigarettes. So if we suspect that our twelve or thirteen year old daughter might be tempted to experiment with smoking, we tell her that a good reason not to do so is that smoking causes cancer. Now this is so misleading a statement as to be practically a lie, but we persuade ourselves that, as the Jesuits claim, 'If the end is lawful, then the means are likewise lawful'. Are we really giving our child the facts and letting her make her own decision? Not a bit of it. What are the facts?

To begin with a woman who smokes has just over one chance in ten of developing lung cancer in the course of her life. Therefore 90% of women who smoke for the whole of their lives will not get lung cancer. Secondly, one must smoke for at least twenty or thirty years to increase the risk of lung cancer to a statistically significant level. In other words, if a girl starts smoking at fifteen and then smokes until she is forty, she is in no more danger of lung cancer than a non smoker. The blunt statement which practically every parent in the land delivers to her child, 'Smoking causes cancer' is thus revealed to be a deliberately untruthful piece of crude scaremongering. We might truthfully say that under some circumstances smoking might cause cancer, but that the development of the disease is also associated with a large number of factors which we do not yet fully understand. Doesn't really sound as catchy as 'Smoking causes cancer', does it?

If we really wanted to give our teenage daughter the facts, then instead of telling her that 'Smoking causes cancer', we would say something like this;

'Well Mary, you have to bear in mind that the vast majority of women who smoke for the whole of their lives do not develop lung cancer. It is pretty rare and the chances are ten to one against your getting it, no matter how many cigarettes you smoke. Also, you could safely start smoking now and then carry on until you were forty without really increasing your risk of the disease. This is because the development of cancer in this way is also the result of a huge number of other factors unconnected with smoking, such as genetic disposition and other matters, some of which could relate to lifestyle. And remember, if you stop for five years, then your chances of lung cancer drop to the same level as a lifelong non-smoker!'

These are the facts about smoking and the teenage girl. Hands up any parent who would dream of presenting the matter like this, simply setting out the facts and leaving the girl to make up her own mind? Has anybody here ever pointed out to her daughter that the odds of a lifelong female smoker developing lung cancer are ten to one against? None of us do this, with smoking or anything else. Instead, we decide what we think is good for our children and then do what we can to manipulate them psychologically into adopting our view of the case. Vegetarians do this with their children and so do people who disapprove of nuclear power stations. Parents who home educate do not give their children the 'facts' about schools, education and the prospects of getting into university, any more than they give them the 'facts' about smoking. They start instead from a position of knowing what the right view on the question is and feeding their children a selection of biased information and black propaganda so that they too adopt the 'correct' view, i.e. their parent's view.

Giving our children the 'facts' is such a ridiculous idea that I wonder any parent could suggest it with a straight face. What we mean by this expression is really transmitting our own particular set of prejudices to our children, ruthlessly editing out all that we disagree with personally in the process, along with anything we think might be bad for our children to know about. If we do this with a life and death matter such as cancer, how much more likely are we to do it with a relatively trivial issue such as the importance of acquiring formal qualifications?