On a number of occasions people have commented on the importance of telling the truth in one context or another. People have talked about the need for accurate birth certificates (see the comments here or you can look at things tagged “birth certificate” if you like) or being honest with kids about the use of gamete donors, etc. I thought it might be useful to collect some of my own thoughts about the value of truth in these matters.
Now as it happens, I am rather a stickler when it comes to telling the truth. I don’t mean I’m above telling the occasional white lie (“Yes, I like your new haircut”), but as to important things, I strive to be as truthful as possible, even when that is hard.
In this, I am strongly influenced by a magnificent essay by Adrienne Rich. It’s in her book On Lies, Secrets and Silence and is called “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying.” (It’s really a terrific essay and I recommend it to everyone.) Her main point, at least as I recall it, is that the liar generally lies to protect herself/himself from uncomfortable situations or difficult conversations. Thus lying is essentially a selfish and cowardly act.
Given this base, it should not be surprising that I believe it is generally important to tell children the truth. Of course, there are exceptions. Perhaps for a while you want a child to believe in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. That generally requires you to be slightly less than truthful. Similarly, most parents have at one time or another admired their children’s art work in ways that might not be scrupulously honest. I see no harm in this sort of thing.
But the topics on this blog concern much bigger matters. If a child is adopted or was concieved using third-party gametes I think it is important to be honest with a child about that.
That said, honesty about these things means different things at different ages. It’s the same as sex education (another thing about which I believe parents ought to be honest.) What you tell a three-year-old is not what you tell a ten-year-old or what you tell a fifteen-year-old. Kids need honest answers that address their concerns at whatever age they happen to be. You can offer some (truthful) information and see if the child wants to know more.
Apart from my principled stance on honesty, I think there’s a completely pragmatic reason for honesty–the child will very likely find these things out eventually and then will understand that the parent was less than honest. The consequences of that discovery can be far more severe than careful exposure to whatever the truth at issue is.
Interestingly, I think this honesty may come more easily to single-parents and lesbian/gay couples than it does to heterosexual couple. The child of a single parent or a same-sex couple must know quite early on that she/he was not conceived and born in the commonly assumed manner. Deceit is not an option.
For heterosexual couples, deceit is an option and it may well be a tempting one. Still, I think the better (and braver) course is not to take that option. And I think perhaps our social norms are shifting this way. Surely honesty about adoption is more common now than it was in my own childhood.
This doesn’t mean that every use of ART needs to be disclosed in the same way. If a heterosexual couple used fertility drugs, for example, or even IVF and a subsequent transfer of the embryo into the woman’s own womb, I’m not sure if a child needs to know that.
This doesn’t actually answer the birth certificate problem. While I can certainly agree that a birth certificate should be accurate and honest, the question is what the certificate purports to show.
In most states, despite what it is called, a birth certificate is supposed to show who the legal parents of a child are. That’s why new certificates get issued on adoption. (It may well be that this practice arose in an age where adoption was frequently concealed. I do not know.) Perhaps this should change. But change won’t be brought by insisting the certificates be honest. It will come about by insisting that the certificates show something other than legal parentage–perhaps the name of the woman who actually gave birth, perhaps the name of the original legal parent(s) of the child.