We underestimate children. I have been reminded of this fact lately with so many seeking to discredit Dylan Farrow. I am particularly bothered by the notion that at 7 years old, Dylan only said what her mother told her to say. I find this incredibly hard to believe. While I find it painful to watch others label Mia a liar and manipulator, I am going to focus on the child. Even if mothers would do something this horrible to their children, parental alienation doesn’t work because children don’t work that way.
I know this for two reasons:
1) I am the mother of two 7-year-olds. I watch them try to figure out life every single day.
2) I remember my own experiences of child sex abuse at 7 years old.
Here are my observations about how children actually approach life:
Children Love Unconditionally
There is no population on this planet who loves the way a child does. When I was growing up, I loved my parents despite what they were doing to me. I desperately wanted them to change. I wanted them to stop abusing me. I wanted them to be real parents. I wanted that more than anything. Even as an adult, it was an extremely difficult decision to speak out about my abuse. I knew that would end any possibility of a reconciliation with my parents. But as an adult, I was able to see them for who they really were. I was able to see their selfishness and understand that they were not going to change.
Until I recovered my first memory of parental abuse, my parents were involved in my children’s lives. When I made the decision to cut ties with my parents for my children’s safety, it was difficult for all of us. My children were only three, so I could not tell them the whole story. I spent a tremendous amount of time trying to figure out how to explain it to them. Originally, I was going to take the fall and tell them it was my decision. But I received some good advice. I was told I should not tell the kids it was my fault, because that was a lie. I wasn’t the abusive person in the relationship. And my kids look up to me. They need to know I am a good person – not perfect – but good. In the end, I told them that nana and grandpa didn’t want me to tell the truth, so I can’t be their friend any more.
Did they accept that answer? Not entirely. They still love them. They still ask why I can’t work it out with them. They don’t understand how adults can decide to end a relationship. When they have a fight with someone, they get upset in the moment. Five minutes later, they love the same. If I had been evil enough to use them against my parents in some way, they would not have cooperated with that. They would have told me to work it out. Anything else goes against their fundamental desire to love unconditionally.
Children Seek the Truth
As a child, I was dying to tell the truth … literally. My parents didn’t just suggest that I be quiet about the abuse. They beat me. In some cases, I was beaten and strangled within inches of my life. I was threatened with death every day. And yet, there were times when I still spoke out. Of course, nobody helped me which is another issue for another article. I know that I am a willful person. I agree that some children might have less of a fight in them. But no child is without will.
My children are no exception to that rule. They know the truth is important. And they are willing to embarrass me in order to uphold it. I will go out on a limb and talk about a situation when I lacked integrity, so I can make my point. Don’t judge me. We were in the line for the Empire State Building observation deck. The tickets are not cheap. My children were 6 years old, and of course, 5-year-olds were free. My children are also short for their age. (You know where this is going.)
I am not proud of what happened next. I told my son to tell the ticket man that he was 5. At the top of his lungs, he shouted, “You want me to lie?” I will never forget the alarmed look on his face. In that moment, I realized that I had just screwed up big time. What kind of example was I setting? When we reached the counter, the man asked me if they were 5, because they looked like they were 5. With my son listening, I reluctantly told him they were 6, but they looked 5, and I prepared for the extra $50 payment. He told me it was close enough and he let them go for free. I was speechless. My son had just taught me a very important lesson.
I asked him to lie, and he said no.
Children Lie (but not about the important stuff)
With that being said, children lie. They lie because they don’t want to get in trouble. They lie about eating a piece of candy that they weren’t supposed to eat. They lie about who started an argument. They lie about eating their lunch. They lie about breaking a toy. And they always give themselves away. They will smile. They will look away. They will make that face that says, “I’m just seeing what will happen here, so give me a break, ok?”
They are experimenting with the best way to stay out of trouble. They want to understand what happens when they lie. They are not manipulating adults with lies. They are experimenting with the world around them. And our reactions to their lies (and their truths) will affect their life choices dramatically.
As a child, I lied. I lied for the same reasons that my children lie. I wanted to stay out of trouble. But in my case, I wanted to stay alive. So my lies covered up my abuse. I was lying to keep my parents out of trouble because I knew that my punishment would be severe. I would tell teachers that I fell. I would tell babysitters that I was fine even when my urinary tract infections were so painful I could not use the bathroom. I would tell friends that I had a great family. I would say anything to make my life safer. I never considered lying to make my life less safe.
Children Fantasize (but not about sex)
Children love to fantasize. Their imaginations are perfectly honed to help them understand the world around them through their own symbolism and stories. My children fantasize every day. In the past week, the fantasies in our house have sounded like this:
“A giant’s tooth would be as big as this apple.”
“Do you think there are unicorns in those waves?”
“When I grow up, I am going to have a white dog and three horses.”
“Do you think we will see real dragons today?”
They fantasize about things they can understand to help them figure out the things they can’t understand. They fantasize about what they know. They know unicorns, dragons, gnomes, knights and princesses. They know love, family, school, friends and sports. They don’t know sex. They don’t know rape. They don’t know the mechanics of the adult body. They don’t know these things because it isn’t time for them to know it yet. We don’t read them stories or show them movies about it. If they know about sex, if they know details about the sexual functions of the human body parts, they are in an abusive environment.
Of course, I was in an abusive environment. And I fantasized when I was growing up. I used to daydream about being rescued. I fantasized about living with a real family that loved me. I dreamed of running away to another country where the adults were nice. As a matter of a fact, I was almost never present. Dissociation was my defense mechanism. I never fantasized about having sex. I didn’t want to spend one more minute on that topic. It was already ruling my life.
These characteristics of children make it impossible for parents to “suggest” false and complicated sexual stories for children to repeat. Children love their parents unconditionally, even when they are separate from them, even when they may have done something wrong. Children seek the truth relentlessly and at all costs. Their lies and fantasies are simple and symbolic representations of what they know. They are not about complex adult issues.
We have to gain a better understanding about how children navigate the world, so that we can give them the credit they deserve. They are not just inexperienced adults. They are complex individuals with their own approach to life that makes it impossible for them to commit the acts we accuse them of. We must trust our children. We must believe them.
Note: To be clear, I am not discussing teenagers. Teenagers can make up stories, however there are other reasons why they would not make up a story about sex abuse.