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Behind the Brutal Honesty of Drunks and Toddlers

Neither one of them have filters.
Flickr Creative Commons / Jordan Whitt

Recently, parents on Facebook have been recording and sharing questions and answers with their children, so I decided to join the fun. The questionnaire included many banal questions (What's mommy's favorite color?) and I was enjoying my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter's sweet answers immensely. I was delighted her responses were so kind, and I was looking forward to sharing them on social media so my friends could see how precious my child is.


As I approached the toughest question, "Could you live without me?" I felt no worry—she'd already told me I didn't annoy her and she loved me way bigger than the entire world. But then she responded "yes," without a second's hesitation. I thought she must be confused. "What about Daddy?" I asked. Could you live without Daddy?" "Yes," she replied blithely. "But that would mean you'd never see us again," I said. "Is there anyone in our family you couldn't live without?" She thought seriously for a moment and then said, "The dogs. I couldn't live without the dogs."

It's been said that you if you want total honesty in life, there are only two groups of people who will deliver: drunks and toddlers. If you've ever dealt with one or both demographics, you know this sentiment to be true. Although we're all capable of speaking truthfully, most of us communicate judiciously by using filters in many of our interactions. Broadly speaking, these filters help constitute "tact," or the ability to communicate in a way that is mindful of the audience's feelings. Tact is notoriously alien to drunks and toddlers alike—one of many reasons why these two glorious subsets of humans are only ones who will always give it you straight, no chaser.

While there's a veritable brewery's worth of research on how alcohol affects the brain and communication, there's less information on why toddlers (the phase generally used to describe a child who has just started walking) speak without a filter. In spite of this dearth, it's commonly known that toddlers are frequently brutally honest communicators. In fact, there's a blog chronicling this very concept called The Honest Toddler—started by Bunmi Latidan, author of Toddlers Are A**holes—which has more than 325,000 social media followers.


The most salient factor as to why toddlers speak without any semblance of a filter is the fact that those filters don't yet exist in their brains, says Arthur Lavin, an Ohio-based pediatrician and American Academy of Pediatrics Committee member. "Toddlers have no filters or defense mechanisms," Lavin says. " They don't care if the world knows how they're feeling. Filters really come into play around four to six years old. From this age until adolescence we have a period called middle childhood. There aren't a lot of emotional outbursts anymore; most of the energy is devoted to learning skills, whether that's in school or watching your parents hunt food and build fires. In order to learn, you have to have defense mechanisms in place. You need to be calm in order to navigate living together."

Lindsay Malloy, Florida International University psychology professor, agrees: Part of the reason toddlers are so honest is that their cognitive and social skills are not yet complex enough to handle lies. "If you think about it," she says, "it's easier to tell the truth. It's what you know. If you lie, you have to think up a falsehood. This entails thinking about what you and the audience know. There are also cues, such as facial expressions. Lying takes a lot of cognitive effort that toddlers' brains are simply not developed enough to handle successfully. It's not yet a mastered skill."

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Unlike healthy adults and adults with dementia, both of whom are living and functioning with varying stages of mental decline, healthy toddler brains get better with age. While research shows newborn babies are conscious, it's quite limited: Newborns lack self-reflectivity and their consciousness is very basic and completely focused on the present.

Similarly, too much alcohol can stunt adult consciousness. George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), says, "There's a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, and it essentially makes you who you are. It controls your executive function, which determines such things as making decisions. It doesn't develop fully until you're about 25, which is why teens have so much more impulsivity than older people." The prefrontal cortex has a few roles, Koob says. One is to control impulsivity and stress response. The second is to control the "reptile brain"—primitive, instinctual functions.

When you drink alcohol as an adult, you can destroy the prefrontal cortex's functionality and the pathways that connect to the reptile brain. "When you're intoxicated, your frontal cortex goes offline. It shuts off its ability to inhibit behavior. We know this is the effect and that's why it's so highly valued—it's a social lubricant. After a few drinks, your tongue loosens and you can make social connections more easily," he adds. These disinhibitory benefits are well-documented to be constructive for a large percentage of the population. When you drink excessively, though, your inhibitions get majorly lowered.

In the case of drunks, Malloy notes that alcohol dulls the frontal lobe and our executive function skills, leading us to say and do things we would normally avoid. She also echoes Lavin's assertion that the "burst of consciousness" drives toddler's brutal honesty. "In psychology, we refer to it as the theory of the mind, which is essentially your ability to understand the mental world around you—everyone has their own. It's the understanding that I can have knowledge you don't have and that it can be manipulated. In the case of neurotypical toddler honesty," she continues, "They are beginning to understand that they can express themselves and that that expression can alter a situation and make it more to their liking."

Toddlers and drunks both experience and express wild swings of emotion. "Excessive amounts of alcohol trigger emotional lability, where the emotions start swinging up and down. They get stuck in the reptile brain—they're no longer inhibited, they have no control left," Koob says. "That's why you can have a drunk person be really happy one minute, [and] the next minute they're crying."

The verbal and communicative filters we employ throughout life are, technically speaking, sophisticated defense mechanisms. Our ability to navigate the world and interact peacefully and effectively with others depends on them. All things considered, let's just be glad toddlers are too young to drink.

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