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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 17th June 2011

Two separate news stories have been running round my head for the last few days and, finally, they’ve come together. The first concerned a report entitled ‘Sexualisation of Young People Review’ published by Dr Linda Papadopoulos. The second was another one of those surveys about the extent of and attitudes to lying.

I’m not going to get into the detail of the review and whether it is an independent literature review or Dr. Papadopoulos expressing her own opinions as fact. All I want to do is accept that children are exposed to adult topics and images much more, today, than was the case for most of the 20th century. I’ve said the 20th century because, go back any further than that and you’re into a world of child labour, child prostitution, use of alcohol, cocaine and morphine by children and many other things that would be unacceptable today. I can’t tell whether children in a 19th century slum were exposed to the adult world faster than children today but it’s too close to judge so a blanket statement that children grow up faster today than ‘in the past’ is almost certainly wrong.

But, looked at over a timescale of no more than 110 years, it is true that children grow up faster now than they did. And that’s where lying comes in. Because if we’re debating whether it is good or bad for children to learn about the world at a young age then we have to ask is the alternative, lying to them about how things work, acceptable.

A lot of plant folklore is concerned with lying to children. Aside from a very small minority, we can be thankful that parents no longer try to use fear of the devil as a means of controlling the behaviour of their children but, belief in the devil gives us a key story about preventing a poisonous plant becoming harmful. Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade, is said to be either owned by or, at least, tended by the devil. For that reason anyone picking its black, juicy berries will find themselves face to face with Satan. This story would prevent children from picking and eating potentially fatal amounts of the fruit.

Digitalis purpurea

Equally, belief in fairies protected children from an over dose of digitoxin. Foxgloves, plants in the Digitalis genus, have downward pointing flowers meaning that fairies could use them for shelter. Any child interfering with a foxglove would be making a fairy homeless so children knew to look but not touch.

Today, by the time a child is old enough to be unsupervised in the garden it has, generally, lost any belief in the devil, fairies, witches or any of the other supernatural creatures said to inhabit the world.

Does this mean that I think lying to children is good if it helps to protect them from danger? I suppose it would if I thought that the lie could be maintained. This is where the role of expanding information from a wide range of media and a child’s peers comes in. There is no point in a parent trying to tell a child the devil exists and they will burn in hell if every other source of information available to them, including most Christians, tells them it is not so.

Cannabis sativa leaf

Where this becomes of critical importance is in the area of psychoactive substances. If someone lies to a child, whether that be the parent or someone claiming to be offering ‘drug education’, about the effects of a substance, the child will very quickly find plenty of other sources who expose the lie. Once the child knows it has been told one lie it will, almost certainly, discount any further information.

Describing cannabis as a ‘killer’ plant when half the adult population has used it at least once in their lives is very easy to expose as ridiculous and, once exposed, any other information you seek to impart is devalued entirely.

We cannot put the genie back in the bottle. Children will be exposed to information and images earlier than we were. But, we need to make sure that, by telling the truth at all times and making sure the child has understood what we are saying, we become accepted as the reliable source on every topic.

When I was going on my first school trip involving staying away for several nights my mother said to me, after first saying through gritted teeth ‘Your father should be telling you this. I don’t know why it’s been left to me’, that if any of the other boys ‘tried to interfere’ with me I should tell the teacher and, if the teacher was doing the interfering, I should go to the police.

Now, I accept, I was pretty naïve as a child but the only ‘interfering’ I’d come across was what the Rugby Football Union called ‘obstruction’ but what the maths teacher who refereed our games called ‘interfering with an opponent not in contact with the ball’. After my mother’s talk I was left completely confused as to how that situation might arise during a youth-hostelling visit to the Lake District.