Children and Honesty Series, Part 1: Creating and Perpetuating Myths
This is the first post in a series about being honest with children. Some posts in this series will contain links to research and opinions of others, but today I will introduce the topic by sharing some of my stories, inviting you to tell yours, and meditating on the concept of myth building.
My mother was the kind of person who absolutely despised dishonesty. Her dangerous marriage to my father had made her unable to tolerate lies of any form, and was very clear that she would be honest with my brother and me no matter what. She never lied to us about our cat dying or about anything, to my knowledge. There were things she wasn’t ready to tell us sometimes, and some truths about my family that didn’t become clear until adulthood, but I grew up being able to trust my mother to tell me if something was wrong. She was my Girl Scout leader and because Honest and Fair is part of the law, it was one of those values that was enforced in everything I did (plus, I am a horrible liar). Did my mom sometimes tell me too much truth? Possibly. We’ll go over that in future installments of the series.
I don’t think I even realized the impact of this particular value on my life until a few years ago, when I realized that I was uncomfortable with the idea of talking to my nephews about Santa Claus. It’s the only thing I do remember my mom lying to me about (well, and the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy), and I was devastated when I found out. I refused to believe that he wasn’t real for so long that I’m sure my mom grew quite concerned that her 11-year-old daughter still believed in Santa. I eventually calmed down about it, but that feeling of confusion and almost betrayal has stayed with me into adulthood.
The difference between a myth and a lie
You might be thinking geez, she wants to take away the fun of Santa just because she doesn’t want to lie to kids?? Not exactly. But I do want us, as children’s programming professionals, to step back and think a moment about what it is we are trying to accomplish when we tell kids stories about things that aren’t real, or give them only part of the truth about the questions they are asking.
As I start a new camp season, my staff and I are reviving an old camp myth and making it a little bigger so that it can become a way to pull everyone at camp together for a shared experience. I’ve been thinking about this concept of lies versus myths a lot, because telling someone “no, this isn’t real” kills the magic we feel about it, and that’s the opposite of what I’m trying to do.
Then, I realized that “no, this isn’t real” isn’t actually true either when we’re talking about camp.
What’s true is that hearing the stories creates a special feeling. That feeling is just as real as anything you can touch or see, and whether we call it “camp spirit”, “camp magic”, or “camp love”, I don’t think that a child would feel lied to later in life, because that feeling stays with them. It isn’t tied to a lie/story/concept/person, it’s tied to an experience.
At the resident camp I went to as a teenager, we had the “spirit of camp” that lived in the place and when we had been there long enough, we started to feel it, too. After 5 years at the same camp, we became part of a special circle of campers and staff who had become part of camp, part of that spirit, and in whom that spirit lived. Sound like a religious idea? Kind of. But it was less worshipful than it was meditative. We had developed a connection to a place, to a time in our lives, and to each other. I still have my necklace from my first ceremony, and every time I see it, I remember all those whose faces I saw around the fire every time I went back. I remember the way it made me feel to drive into camp that first day and see the lake again after a winter away. I remember the way the stars looked over the forest and the way the bugs sang so loudly at night that you’d have to shout to be heard. I remember the experience and what that experience meant to me.
So how can you work with a myth to keep the magic in the experience and not in the story?
Again, what is it that you are trying to accomplish? At my camp, we are trying to build community. Our retention rate has been low, so we want to instill a love of camp in our new campers and create a sense of ownership and responsibility in each child for this wonderful place, in the hopes that they return year after year, become CITs, and then eventually, counselors. At Day Camp, this is particularly tricky because the camp does not become their whole existence for the week–it’s more like a week at school or day care.
Our solution to this drive for community, love, ownership, and responsibility is to develop a story about our camp mascot (who’s been dormant for a few years) and to invite children who take care of camp to her home (a cabin that is positioned in a weird place anyway) for a special experience. They’ll get to see that the magic of camp does not exist in just one creature, but in all of those who believe in and take care of camp. Telling the story of our camp mascot, I have already run into girls who say “dragons aren’t real!” or “magic isn’t real!”. What I’ve said to this is that there are things that are real at camp that aren’t real anywhere else, just like flying people are only real in books and movies, and secrets are only real if you don’t tell them. They seem satisfied with this answer, and my hope is that the whole experience will go from awe, to inspiration, to pride, to love. The trick will be creating a myth for the children to be a part of, and not a lie that will later break their hearts.
Please share your experiences and stories! Where did you find myths as a child? What magic did that hold for you? How was that done and how did you feel when you realized that it was all a construct? How have you contributed to myth making as a children’s programming professional? Camp is certainly not the only place this happens!