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Supernanny on lying - this behaviour is 'unasseptable'

By Helen Pringle - posted Tuesday, 28 June 2005


Like many parents of young children, I watch the television series Supernanny. Every Monday night, Supernanny Jo Frost goes on a mission to save another family where the children are running amok, subjecting harried parents to what Frost calls mob rule and "unasseptable" behaviour. I watch the program a little against my better judgment. There is an element of voyeurism in the appeal of the program, which plays on the morbid fascination of watching domestic train wrecks, other people’s wrecks that is.

However, there are also useful things to be learned from the series. I think that much of Supernanny Frost's advice is of some value. It seems to help the parents to get control of their children and more important perhaps, of themselves. However, there is little sense that Frost is much interested in the development of children's moral character.

In a recent program, Frost gave advice to a family with one son and younger twins. The older boy was given to sneak attacks on the twins when his mother turned her back, and to lying when asked whether he had thumped them. However, it very quickly became clear that father and mother took very different approaches to the boy's lies. The boy's father took an uncompromising line, demanding that the boy be sent straight to the “naughty room” when found to be lying, without any warning. The mother had a less harsh view on the matter. The approach taken by Supernanny Frost was to get the mother to explain to the child why he should not lie. But in a revealing moment, neither Frost nor the mother seemed able to come up with any good explanation, finally settling on something like, "Mummy doesn't like it when you lie".

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The child the Supernanny seeks to cultivate is obedient to parents and does not behave naughtily by flouting the rules and the routine. And these things are important. However, the principles behind the rules and the routine are of even greater importance. The inability of Frost and the mother in the program to explain the wrongness of lies is striking within this context. Striking - but not unusual.

Lying seems to rank very low on the modern scale of moral and political wrongs. For many people, the perspective on lying held by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant is puzzling if not foolish. For Kant a lie is one of the worst things. Even when it is "harmless" or "white" it is not innocent. Kant writes that lying is "a serious violation of duty to oneself and one for which there can be no remission, since the transgression subverts the dignity of man in our own person and attacks the roots of our thinking". That is, a lie not only shows contempt to those to whom it is told, but it is a wrong to humanity more generally.

In his essay On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies from Benevolent Motives, Kant's conclusion is, "To be truthful (honest) in all declarations is therefore a sacred unconditional command of reason, and not to be limited by any expediency". And not to be limited by any consequences: Fiat iustitia et pereat mundus, Kant proclaimed in Perpetual Peace - which in "simple language", according to Kant, means "Justice shall prevail, even though all the rascals in the world should perish as a result".

Many of Kant's contemporaries, as well as his later readers, have found Kant's insistence on the duty of truth telling to be intolerable. The students I teach at university align themselves without exception against Kant (and this goes for religious students as well). These students are quite capable of holding to other principles unconditionally. Many students, for example, maintain that killing is always wrong, or that betraying your friend is always wrong. But to speak the truth - and let the world go its own way and the heavens fall - does not seem to them to be an unconditional moral duty. Like Supernanny Frost, their position on this question seems to mirror an uncertainty about what does constitute the particular wrong of lying.

I think that Dr Benjamin Spock could have told the mother of the little boy who lied what she should say. Dr Spock was the author of Baby & Child Care, the how-to manual on which generations of baby boomers were ostensibly raised (that is, when their parents had time to read it). It is true that Spock's work is often mentioned as a permissive counterfoil to the firmness of the Supernanny approach. Miranda Devine, for example (in "How to find the cherub in every brat", SMH, April 28, 2005) welcomes the Supernanny as a reaction to what she sees as the "permissiveness" of Dr Spock.

Devine argues, "the trend of permissive parenting, launched by Dr Benjamin Spock in the 1950s and '60s as a reaction against the authoritarian child-rearing practices of the past, has gone too far, leaving a generation of laxly parented parents clueless about how to manage their own children and desperate for advice". Devine praises Supernanny Frost for making "judgments about right and wrong" and for using "such politically incorrect words as 'naughty' and 'discipline', 'tames' and 'authority'".

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However, Supernanny Frost does not talk about "right and wrong". Her preference is for talking about "good and naughty". Dr Spock in contrast does make judgments about right and wrong, a fact which could only be missed by someone who had never taken the trouble to read his work. And Spock talks often about authority and discipline. In the section of Baby & Child Care entitled "Discipline", for example, Spock advocates consistency and firmness, and recommends the use of "a special chair for a few minutes" as a means of discipline. In striking contrast to the Supernanny, Spock does not abjure spanking as a means of discipline.

Dr Spock was always careful in his advice to guide the child in developing an independent and autonomous character. That is, his advice is meant to nurture a child who not only knows right from wrong, but who is able to say what makes something right or what makes it wrong, and who is able to say that not as a parrot but as a democratic citizen. (He wasn't in favour of lengthy explanations at every turn, however.) Living through the Johnson and Nixon years in the United States, Spock displayed an increasing impatience with the aggressiveness of America but even more with its citizens' willingness to be deceived and to deceive others.

I am not suggesting that we read passages of Kant to very young children in a vain hope of their picking up thereby an antipathy to lying and to liars. But when we do correct children for moral failings, we need to have a clear sense of why and how those failings flaw their own character. It is not enough simply to tell them that they have broken the rules, and that Mummy doesn't like it when you do that. The 17th century poet George Herbert, in his beautiful poem “The Church-porch” from The Temple, ventured an explanation of how lying is related to character and to the virtue of courage: "Cowards tell lies, and those that fear the rod". And Herbert counselled, "Dare to be true. Nothing can need a ly". Teaching the virtues of character is hard, but it is something of greater worth than teaching a child simply to follow a set of rules.

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About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

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