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Out of the mouths of babes . . .

Were balloon boy Falcon Heene's words a sign of a hoax or a kid's confusion? Child behavior experts say they could be either -- or both.

October 20, 2009|Jeannine Stein

As investigators consider whether to file felony charges against the Colorado couple suspected of crafting the riveting boy-supposedly-in-the-balloon story, attention is focusing on the boy himself -- specifically the line that many people have taken to be a ratting out of his father. Falcon Heene, all of 6 years old and at the center of a sudden and overwhelming media frenzy, commented to father Richard Heene during a CNN interview: "You had said that we did this for a show."

With that sentence, what had seemed like an extraordinary accident came under intense scrutiny as law enforcement, forensics experts and the public tried to figure out if the child was telling the truth or conjuring something up from his imagination.

Some viewers suspected the boy was simply confused about what had happened. After all, the family had been on a reality show, and don't kids that young have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality?

Others took it as proof that the boy had been coached to go along with a story his parents had concocted -- an allegation they've firmly denied.

In fact, either or both could be true, say child psychologists and psychiatrists. That unreliability is one reason why children are often not put on witness stands during court cases.

"A 6-year-old is able to distinguish between fantasy and reality, and that even happens at a younger age," says Andrea Vazzana, a clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the NYU Child Study Center. "If a child is playing pretend, they're aware they're playing pretend."

What they may not be able to do, however, is separate their own experiences from what they've been told -- a task some adults can't always master.

"When things have been suggested to them," Vazzana says, "they may incorporate them into their narrative, and depending on their age they may have more difficulty understanding which piece really occurred and which piece was suggested. The younger the child, the more difficulty he or she may have in being able to distinguish between the two."

That may be, she adds, because young children are simply more likely to forget things.

"They're likely to fill in gaps in their memory with things that have been suggested to them," she says.

Things become even more complex if the parent is the one doing the suggesting -- as in custody battles when parents coach their children to tell false tales of neglect or abuse.

"Kids at that age are much more into pleasing their parents than anyone else," says Dr. Robert Horst, assistant clinical professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at UC Davis. "They're at the age where they're beginning to look to their friends for guidance and ideas, but for the most part they want to emulate their parents."

And if a child is told to stick to a false story, that may fall apart if the story is questioned.

"The more times they have to go through the interview," Vazzana, "the more confusing it can get for them."

A child's truthfulness is not always black and white, says Horst. He points out that how 6-year-olds perceive reality may depend on their developmental stage, their relationship with their parents, and how much exposure they've had to the outside world.

"An 8-year-old would be much better" at distinguishing reality, says Dr. Elisabeth Guthrie, associate clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Columbia University. "And a 4-year-old is more likely to imagine things, but a 6-year-old is in between."

Kids that age may not only believe in the tooth fairy, but even profess to have seen her.

"They may fuse elements of fairies they've heard about, or seen at Halloween, and they're trying to put it together, to make sense out of it," Guthrie says. "They're trying to use elements of reality and fantasy to make a cohesive narrative. As they get older, of course, they know that the tooth fairy is really their mother."

Falcon had been on a reality TV show, his parents were supposedly pushing for another show and, at the time of his famed utterance, he was on a TV news program. Confusion of time elements and facts could be understandable.

When children are traumatized, Guthrie adds, that can distort the boundaries even more.

"Some would have a very good grasp of what is real, and some would have a more fluid distinction. But when children become stressed, there may be opportunity for that to change, for perception to be distorted and corrections to be made in the memory by fusing more fantasy with it."

For a child facing multiple TV interviews, stress would be a given. (Falcon threw up during two interviews.) But whether such duress might lead toward brutal honesty or a confused slip-up, it's hard to say.

As Richard and Mayumi Heene now face a decidedly more hostile public -- not to mention more skeptical authorities -- in the wake of their son's blurted statement, Falcon probably doesn't grasp the ramifications of what's happened.

"He's thinking about his family and what will happen when he goes back to school," Horst says. "He has no concept of international attention. He doesn't have a map of the size of the world."

--

jeannine.stein@latimes.com

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