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Today is the anniversary of the birth of the Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch de Spinoza, in 1632.

I tell you truly that I know next to nothing about Spinoza’s philosophies.  According to Wikipedia, he believed:

God exists only philosophically and that God was abstract and impersonal.  Spinoza’s system imparted order and unity to the tradition of radical thought, offering powerful weapons for prevailing against “received authority.” As a youth he first subscribed to Descartes’s dualistic belief that body and mind are two separate substances, but later changed his view and asserted that they were not separate, being a single identity. He contended that everything that exists in Nature (i.e., everything in the Universe) is one Reality (substance) and there is only one set of rules governing the whole of the reality which surrounds us and of which we are part. Spinoza viewed God and Nature as two names for the same reality,  namely the single substance (meaning “that which stands beneath” rather than “matter”) that is the basis of the universe and of which all lesser “entities” are actually modes or modifications, that all things are determined by Nature to exist and cause effects, and that the complex chain of cause and effect is only understood in part.

Well, that’s as may be.   But here’s my question:  In P. G. Wodehouse, the great gentleman’s personal gentleman Jeeves makes reference more than once to his own partiality to Spinoza.  (Indeed, it is Bertie’s kind-hearted but hapless attempt to buy a collection of Spinoza’s works for Jeeves that lands him in a fearful misunderstanding with Florence Cray.)  In this emphasis, is Plum trying to make some kind of philosophical point?  Or is he just tagging his character with a partiality to a particular intellectual fad of the day?

I strongly suspect the latter.  On the other hand, Plum could be pretty egg-headed when he wanted, so I am not yet prepared to dismiss the former out of hand.

(Now that I come to think of it, many books have been written analyzing Plum’s writing, but I cannot remember coming across one examining Jeeves’ philosophical make-up.  As I say, he is obviously fond of Spinoza.  Marcus Aurelius, too.  Perhaps there’s room for another study here.  (Copyright note to potential scholars – Dibs!))

Do parents’ white lies hurt children?

[A] new study suggests that most parents lie to their children almost as a matter of routine — and its authors claim that this could cause serious harm, weakening trust between children and adults.

The study, in the Journal of Moral Education last month, suggested that even those parents who placed most value on honesty used lies to control their children.

Professor Gail Heyman, of the University of California, questioned 130 students and their parents about parental lying. She was surprised to find that more than 80 per cent of parents lied at some point, even those who insisted to their children that it was never OK to lie. There was a danger, she said, that children could receive mixed messages at a time when they were learning how to function in the social world.

Professor Heyman says that she tries to avoid lying to her children — a point of view influenced perhaps by her experience, at the age of 6, of mounting a defence of the existence of the tooth fairy in a speech to her classmates. How does she cope if one of her children has a screaming fit in a supermarket without telling him or her that a crocodile lives under the freezer and comes out to eat naughty boys and girls? “I do the hard thing,” she says. “I leave the shopping and go home.”

The study looked at straightforward lies intended to control children’s behaviour.  These ranged from the old stalwart that I use with my daughter — “If you don’t wear your shoes when you go out, a policeman will tell you off” — to threats of leaving screaming children on the street to be kidnapped, to the insistence that “baby Jesus will find out”.

Unlike the US researchers, Dr Jack Boyle, a Glasgow-based psychologist, is not surprised that so many parents resort to lying. “Only 80 per cent?” he says. “Well, I’d say the other 20 per cent are lying, too. Everyone lies all the time.” This, he says, is no bad thing: “If you don’t tell them that the dog has gone to Heaven, if you say he died, you share your worries and fears with them. Children don’t have the capacity to handle that. We lie to spare them.”

Well, now.  

I won’t go into the debate on the wisdom of employing the little white lie.  In general, I agree with Dr. Boyle – one pitches the message to the level of understanding of the audience.  One also seeks to allow one’s children to remain, well, children, before they’re forced to grow up.  And as far as that goes, I would note my experience that as they get older, the kiddies seem to figure out Santa and the Tooth Fairy (and the Birds and the Bees, for that matter) for themselves, thank you very much, with minimal questioning about how Mummy and Daddy could have perpetuated such myths over the years.   (Not to be cruel about it, but I am deeply suspicious of any anecdote about “mounting spirited defenses” of the Tooth Fairy against presumably hostile classmates at the tender age of 6.   To me, the reference to this in the article is at least prima facie evidence that Prof. Heyman is probably some kind of nut to begin with.)

No, what strikes me as most amusing about this article is Professor Heyman’s anecdote about the supermarket meltdown.  Does she really believe that a retreat from her planned schedule in the face of a child meltdown is the “hard” thing to do?   Sounds positively Vichy to me  – and don’t think Child isn’t taking very careful notes.  Very careful notes.

No, the “hard” thing to do in such a situation is to adopt a policy that says, “Look, you little bastard, I need to buy groceries and I’m going to.  So knock it off or I’ll staple your mouth shut.” 

 Buh-lieve me – In the long run, a stern front and a few fabrications are much more healthy than appeasement.


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November 2009