Who Gets to Decide What’s True in Family Lore?

I don’t believe my son about his Xbox Live suspension. He doesn’t believe me about his early years.

Jordan Shapiro
Feb 11 · 8 min read
Credit: Malte Mueller/Getty Images

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“Please don’t talk about this in some interview,” my 11-year-old pleaded with me.

We were wrapping up a long text message exchange about his online behavior. And I’d bet, if you asked him, it felt more like a lecture than a discussion.

Earlier in the day, I found a “notice of Xbox Live enforcement action” in my email inbox. My son’s communication privileges had been suspended for 28 hours because another player reported “abusive or offensive language.” The notice provided very few facts for me to consider, so I immediately sent a message to him at his mom’s house (we share custody) asking for his side of the story. Not surprisingly, his explanation downplayed any actual wrongdoing: it was another player’s fault that he got “kicked from the party.”

The whole story reminded me of those slightly-edited versions of the truth that I always submitted to the grown-ups during parent-teacher conferences. Somewhere, deep in my psyche, my inner tweenager was embarrassed to realize that I had been mistaken each time I thought I fooled my parents with a blatant omission of facts.

Yes, I was a troublemaker, but I never considered myself a liar. Though, I admit there were times when my denial of guilt was so forceful that even I began to believe it was true. However, now that I’m the dad — investigator, prosecutor, defense attorney, disciplinarian, judge, and compassionate mama-bear all knotted up together — my perspective on honesty among parents and children has shifted considerably.

Research shows that kids start lying before they’re 2 years old, and some studies suggest that more instances of deception are associated with stronger executive function skills. So, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that my son’s a liar. But how should I deal with his dishonesty? Ordinarily, I scrutinize the facts only when I think further examination has the potential to bring us both closer to the truth; it’s often clear that additional details won’t change the moral of the story.

“I’m not sure I believe you,” I swiped my thumb across the letters on Android’s Gboard, “there must be more to it.” I clicked send and reminded my son that every time I walk in on his marathon Fortnite sessions, I tell him to stop dropping F-bombs. He protested that this instance was different. “I’m telling the truth,” he insisted. I shot back a sarcastic GIF of Donald Trump saying, “believe me!” Then, I added a few angry-face emojis for emphasis, “please be more thoughtful about your online behavior in the future.”

I was careful not to make any promises about what I would or wouldn’t publicly disclose about the incident. I’ve been aggressively promoting a book about childhood, screen time, video games, and the challenges parents face while raising kids in a connected world. An Xbox Live suspension is a golden asset, a perfect sound bite; I couldn’t wait to tell my publicist about it. I opened Microsoft Word and started to write this post. But a nagging Jiminy Cricket kept singing on my shoulder. Am I allowed to use this incident as an example? Is it too opportunist? Will my son feel betrayed if he finds out about it? Probably not. He’ll notice that I’ve omitted some details and added others; I’ve massaged the truth to make my point.

Humans excel at constructing narratives of the past that conform to their preferred understanding of the now.

Both of my sons always tell me that they’re not sure whether to believe anything I say about their early years. Listening to the audio version of my book during our commutes to and from school, they were not at all shocked to hear that almost every chapter features anecdotes about them, stories of our family life. During the time that I’ve been writing and speaking about education and childrearing, they’ve seen me share so many embellished social media posts. They’ve watched me manipulate their stories: transforming actual events into pithy punchlines and provocative lessons about good parenting. Of course, it’s all based on real life, but storytelling involves selective memory. Even nonfiction requires creatively framing the facts.

This is not a dilemma unique to my profession. If you’re a parent, chances are you’re constantly putting bits and pieces of your life on record — sharing photos, memes, and memories on social media. It’s no longer just an annual note included with the Christmas card. Nowadays, you construct a meaningful story in real time. And then, you surrender it into a permanent digital archive; you display it the way seasonal decorations proudly adorn a suburban cul-de-sac’s picture window.

And yet, it’s not all about humblebrags and keeping up with the Joneses. All households have their stories that they repeat ad nauseam at dinners and gatherings. They always have. But how are those stories established? I remember fighting with my older brothers about the facts: “That’s not what happened.” “I never said that!” But age still bestows at least one birthright: primary ownership of the family’s mythology, veto power in the archive of shared memories. As sociocultural anthropologist James Wertsch has written, collective remembering is “an active process that often involves contention and contestation.” That means existing power dynamics are always at play.

When we disagreed about how an event went down, my siblings would give me that you’ll-understand-when-you’re-older glance. This tiny implied reference to my supposed naivete was a subtle, but aggressive reminder of where I fit into the pack. It was Alpha and Beta, just like Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus, Edgar and Edmund. My older brothers’ version of events is what ended up permanently inscribed into our legacy. Their truth was destined to be endlessly revisited at Thanksgiving, weddings, and funerals — each time under the pretense that it’s a spontaneous retelling.

Of course, these recitations are never impulsive. A family’s understanding of its identity depends on nostalgic stories. That’s why we cover the walls of our homes with photographs of vacations and milestones. We display heirlooms on the mantelpiece. As Barbara Fiese, director of the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, writes, “The fact that we hold onto physical objects such as goblets, silverware, and plates that can be used in ritual gatherings suggests that we seek ways to keep the past alive.”

We surround ourselves with artifacts that not only evoke memories, but also define our heritage. We know, at least unconsciously, that in order to imagine a hopeful story about the future — or the present — we’re first required to make decisions about how we frame our memories of yesteryear. The cliche may be that hindsight is 20/20, but that’s just an acknowledgment that humans excel at constructing narratives of the past that conform to their preferred understanding of the now.

This is why parents are always crafting narratives for our children. We are teaching them how to make sense of their world. We are training them to respond to events in certain ways, to select specific kinds of interpretations and to disregard others. That’s our job. And it’s about a lot more than just the facts, because lurking underneath every story is a lesson about something even more significant: a structural understanding of what constitutes truth and what’s worthy of doubt.

Consider the average conflict among siblings. He touched my Lego-guys! She changed the channel! How come he gets to sit in the front seat? Why does she get the last popsicle? Before you know it, things escalate to biting and kicking and hitting and screaming. And when a grown-up breaks up the fight, a battle for the story ensues. She said. He said. I didn’t do anything. It’s all her fault! When parents are at their best, they can filter out all the whining. They reframe the dispute in a way that encourages kids to take multiple perspectives and feelings into consideration.

He’s not just trying to “get away with it.” He’s retelling the story in a way that better aligns with the values he knows I care about.

We teach our children to be hospitable to conflicting accounts of reality. We want them to recognize that despite clear differences, people all have enough in common that we can and should do our best to arrive at a consensual understanding of truth. We don’t teach this lesson because we have an idealist utopian fantasy of love, peace, and compromise. It’s not post-modern brainwashing, nor a devotion to Marxist subjectivity. It’s also not overprotective coddling that refuses to take a moral or ethical stand.

No, it’s just good parenting. It’s recognizing that if stories are the building blocks of identity, then conflicting narratives have the potential to threaten not only a worldview, but also a sense of self. Therefore, open-mindedness becomes a kind of fortification. And since the new childhood takes place in a connected world, our kids desperately need to know how to feel stable and safe even when they are bombarded by difference.

They will need to transcend the crude binary framework of “real vs. fake” and “fact vs. fiction,” recognizing that if Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are now a ubiquitous part of life, then we are no longer just the audience, but also the storytellers, the producers, the media itself. The digital artifacts we post and share contour our experience of the present and tether us to a cultural and collective memory, a definition of historic truth.

Thus, tomorrow’s adults urgently need to know how to participate online with intention and purpose. How do we teach them? We start by recognizing that for today’s kids, video games are like a startup incubator. Fortnite, Minecraft, YouTube, and Scratch are playgrounds where young people find opportunities to practice and iterate social narrative-construction. An Xbox chat party is a place to experiment with collective meaning-making that’s mediated through digital tools.

When my son bends the truth about his Xbox suspension, he’s not just trying to “get away with it.” He’s also retelling the story in a way that better aligns with the values he knows I care about. It’s like a rehearsal — a kind of visualization. A part of him is imagining what he would’ve done differently, preparing himself for the possibility that a similar situation could arise again.

A good parental response makes it clear that I’m skeptical of his story, and that I do indeed disapprove of whatever really happened. But at the same time, I want to reward his revisioning efforts; to acknowledge that he has already edited the story. It is evidence that he knows what he did wrong. It’s verification that he’s already learned from his mistakes.

So, I picked up my son from his mom’s house and I told him I was writing about his Xbox suspension. He looked angry at first. But I assured him it was okay; I’d let him see the article before it was published.

He read the final draft slowly, looking confused the whole time.

“You never sent me a Trump GIF,” he said. Or did he?

Jordan Shapiro

Written by

Author of The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World (TheNewChildhood.com) Twitter: @jordosh

Reasonable Doubt
Reasonable Doubt
Reasonable Doubt

About this Medium Magazine

Reasonable Doubt

What do we trust? What can we believe — and what can’t we? What does it take to change people’s minds, at a moment when the truth itself is in doubt? There is a lot to unpack in these uncertain times, and in our February issue of Medium magazine — Reasonable Doubt — we’ll tackle these questions and more.

What do we trust? What can we believe — and what can’t we? What does it take to change people’s minds, at a moment when the truth itself is in doubt? There is a lot to unpack in these uncertain times, and in our February issue of Medium magazine — Reasonable Doubt — we’ll tackle these questions and more.

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