Always Tell Kids The Truth?

Nov 30, 2013 @ 9:49am

The above video shows children reacting to the “news” that their parents ate all their Halloween candy – a prank. Sam Harris takes offense, insisting that “anyone who takes pleasure in all this exploited cuteness is morally confused”:

My daughter is nearly five, and I can recall lying to her only once. We were looking for nursery rhymes on the Internet and landed on a page that showed a 16th-century woodcut of a person being decapitated. As I was hurriedly scrolling elsewhere, she demanded to know what we had just seen. I said something silly like “That was an old and very impractical form of surgery.” This left her suitably perplexed, and she remains unaware of man’s inhumanity to man to this day. However, I doubt that even this lie was necessary. I just wasn’t thinking very fast on my feet.

As parents, we must maintain our children’s trust—and the easiest way to lose it is by lying to them. Of course, we should communicate the truth in ways they can handle—and this often demands that we suppress details that would be confusing or needlessly disturbing. An important difference between children and (normal) adults is that children are not fully capable of conceiving of (much less looking out for) their real interests. Consequently, it might be necessary in some situations to pacify or motivate them with a lie. In my experience, however, such circumstances almost never arise.


Dec 3, 2013 @ 3:22pm

Ctd …

A reader writes:

While I truly despise the parents who followed Kimmel’s Halloween candy prank, I have to disagree with Sam Harris, who only lied to his kid once.  I’m sorry, but I really did enjoy maintaining the fantasy of Santa Claus for my child.  It was not only a lot of fun, but it provided great motivation when her behavior threatened to go to the dark side.  Heck, I expanded the concept to include “Kenny the Birthday Kangaroo” who shared files with Santa.  My best friend claimed to have Santa’s cell phone number on speed dial to report any last minute misbehavior.  The Tooth Fairy paid ransom for teeth in both of our homes.

Those are all lies, and our children trust us. But it’s not the act of lying; it’s the intent behind the lie that determines if our children trust us.  Our children know we would not harm them or cause them unnecessary pain (unlike the children who were tortured about candy so their parents could get a few minutes of fame). That’s what trust is about.

Another:

My wife once told our oldest son a good one. When he was around 3, we went to Kauai for vacation and he discovered Fruit Loops at the hotel’s breakfast buffet.  He fell in love and would make a beeline for them every morning.  His mom and I weren’t happy about all of that sugar, but let it go as we were only there a week & hoped he would forget about it as soon as he stopped getting his breakfast at a buffet.  Wrong.  The first morning back home in Seattle, he started getting a little belligerent about wanting Fruit Loops.  After a few minutes of firm no’s and trying to reason with him, he was still insisting.  So she told him that unfortunately they were a regional food available only in Hawaii.  He thought about it for a few seconds and that was it.  He calmed down and ate his normal breakfast without further complaint.  I thought it was genius.

Another differs:

I hated being patronized as a kid and always try to “keep it real” with kids. Judaism is my favorite Abrahamic religion because, in addition to revering scholarship and devoting a holiday to all-night Talmudic study, they avoid the Christian tendency to turn religious holidays into occasions for inventing impossible narratives (a flying fat man and a giant bunny delivering toys and candy respectively) and misleading children into believing them.


Dec 4, 2013 @ 2:59pm

Ctd …

A reader writes:

I hope this thread takes off with reader comments like many of your others! There is a lot of room to maneuver between the cruel, artless, and deliberately upsetting lies encouraged by the revolting Jimmy Kimmel and the cold, unblinking presentation of reality to children. Indeed, I find bullshitting one’s children is a singular and abiding joy of parenthood! For example, I have insisted for years to my now seven year-old son that (a) chocolate milk comes from brown cows, and (b) dogs can drive.  He has never really believed me, but I have stuck to my guns with increasingly unlikely embellishments (e.g. not just any dog – only those that can pass a special driving test).

I believe there is value for children in sniffing out and articulating why certain massive whoppers peddled by their normally-trusted parents are untrue. In this way, healthy skepticism is developed without making children distrustful (as perhaps you should be if your parents will reduce you to tears just because a second-rate comedian told them to) or naive (believing adults always tell the truth).

Another is on the same page:

Count me as yet another defender, and practitioner, of lying to one’s offspring. When done right, it is good for their souls. I refer to the paradoxical cults of Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny. What strange mythic beings those three are! They are neither gods nor fictional characters; they are a hybrid of the two. The child is expected both to believe and then later disbelieve! They start out as Truth Revealed, but end up as Fun Lies. They enact, within the child’s own lifetime, a mini-Enlightenment. Their final sermon is doubt; their greatest miracle is their own refutation.

For Santa doesn’t just die, like some plain old corn god; it turns out that he never even was. He was a lie, a trick, a prank. But the disillusionment is gentle; for the presents were real, and they keep coming. The god fails, but parental love remains.

I see Santa as an initiation rite into skepticism. He is a noble lie; for he turns children into philosophers. Santa is the patron saint of unbelief.

Another:

My oldest came home in 2nd grade and said a bunch of kids at school were telling her that Santa isn’t real and it’s just her parents.  She then asked me if that was true.  In my defense, I was nursing her infant sister, wasn’t sleeping, and wasn’t thinking.  I thought she knew the truth and was testing me.  So I told her that Santa isn’t real and that we gave her all her presents.  She freaked out.  She started crying hysterically and mourned Santa as if he died.  It was horrible.  I called my husband at work and he was so angry at me.  It was awful.  So now I lie:

Mom, have you ever tried any drugs?
Answer: Nope
Mom, were you a virgin when you met Dad?
Answer: Yep
Mom, what does tea-bagging mean? (got this one when she was in 6th grade)
Answer: It’s a new political movement.  Taxed Enough Already.

How the hell was I supposed to explain tea-bagging to an 11 year old? The Jimmy Kimmel stuff is funny, though a bit cruel, and I wouldn’t do it to my kids, but sometimes you just have to lie.

Another:

Fantasies about Santa Claus can be seen as part of psychological development, as we move from pre-rational, to rational, then onto trans-rational (hopefully). I may not believe in Santa anymore, but I’m glad he’s still around, as a reminder of generosity. In the same way, the Garden of Eden may be fully believed at one point, dismissed as fantasy later on, but hopefully seen in a trans-rational perspective as a valuable meditation on good and evil. Most of us get stuck at some stage or another. Perhaps religion, understood differently, can act as a sort of conveyor belt.

Another notes:

I have to object to the reader’s characterisation of the “Christian tendency to turn religious holidays into occasions for inventing impossible narratives (a flying fat man and a giant bunny delivering toys and candy respectively).” I’m sorry, but that is a British/American tendency, not a Christian one. Spain, for one, did not turn either Easter or Christmas into any such thing, nor did any country in its vicinity.

Another narrows that point even more:

I suspect that for the common difficulties of balancing truth with commercial myths – Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny – the problem is uniquely American. Growing up in England, as I did, to American parents, none of these were on the map. Christmas had Father Christmas, but he was a minor and distinctly human figure – good for a sack of chocolate gelt or Cadbury bar, but not the main chance. Santa, the fairy, and the bunny didn’t exist. I suppose we missed out on certain fantasies, but they weren’t missed. It was nifty enough to get a few coins under the pillow as payment for a tooth, or to find a bright blue egg behind the couch – no explanation needed. A straightforwardness worth emulating, I think.


Dec 5, 2013 @ 1:41pm

Ctd …

The thread takes an unexpected turn:

I laughed when I read what your reader wrote:

I have to object to the [previous] reader’s characterization of the “Christian tendency to turn religious holidays into occasions for inventing impossible narratives (a flying fat man and a giant bunny delivering toys and candy respectively)” I’m sorry, but that is a British/American tendency, not a Christian one. Spain, for one, did not turn either Easter or Christmas into any such thing, nor did any country in its vicinity.

Apparently he’s never heard of caga tió, the gift-shitting Christmas log:

The Tió de Nadal, popularly called Caga tió (“shitting log”), is a character in Catalan 460px-Cagatiomythology relating to a Christmas tradition widespread in Catalonia. The form of the Tió de Nadal found in many Catalan homes during the holiday season is a hollow log of about thirty centimetres length. Recently, the tió has come to stand up on two or four little stick legs with a broad smiling face painted on the higher of the two ends, enhanced by a little red sock hat (a miniature of the traditional Catalan barretina) and often a three-dimensional nose.

Beginning with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8), one gives the tió a little bit to “eat” every night and usually covers him with a little blanket so that he will not be cold at night.

On Christmas day or, depending on the particular household, on Christmas Eve, one puts the tió partly into the fireplace and orders it to defecate; the fire part of this tradition is no longer as widespread as it once was, since many modern homes do not have a fireplace. To make it defecate one beats the tió with sticks, while singing various songs of Tió de Nadal.

The tradition says that before beating the tió all the kids have to leave the room and go to another place of the house to pray asking for the tió to deliver a lot of presents. This makes the perfect excuse for the relatives to do the trick and put the presents under the blanket while the kids are praying.

The tió does not drop larger objects, as those are considered to be brought by the Three Wise Men. It does leave candies, nuts and torrons. Depending on the part of Catalonia, it may also give out dried figs. When nothing is left to “shit”, it drops a salt herring, a head of garlic, an onion or “urinates”. What comes out of the tió is a communal rather than individual gift, shared by everyone present.

Update from a reader:

03-caganer-catalan-artesania-caganer-terra-i-marYou simply can’t inform your readers about the Caga Tio without also highlighting the peculiar custom of the Caganers.  In Spain nativity displays (a belen) are very popular. My husband’s father has accumulated a nativity display that includes an entire village, farms, animals, etc. that takes days to set up.  A feature called the “caganer” is a figure – a shepherd, villager etc. – who is obscurely placed in the belen and is often, well, taking a dump. Children (and adults) search the display to find the caganer.  If you search shops and Christmas markets you can even find “action” caganers – with animated arms swiping a tiny tissue across their rear.  And if that’s not strange enough, you can find innumerable examples of “celebrity” caganers – small figures of everyone from Queen Elizabeth to the Pope, President Obama to Madonna and every member of Real Madrid et al. – all taking a dump.  Great gifts for back home if you happen to be in Barcelona over the holidays!


Dec 9, 2013 @ 8:41pm

Ctd …

A reader sends the above video for the thread tangent on the “shitting log”:

This short documentary explains the Catalan Christmas – and how the shitter has become an expression of political/cultural resistance.

Another adds:

Thanks to your reader for the info about caga tió.  Also relevant is the French Easter tradition regarding  les cloches de Pâques (is France in Spain’s “vicinity”?). In France church bells go silent on Jeudi saint (Maundy Thursday) and stay silent until Easter Sunday. The silence of the bells is rationalized by telling the children that the bells are off to Rome (to confer with the Pope?) and that they will return bearing colored eggs and candy and whatnot.  I think pretty much the same story is told by Catholics in Holland, Belgium and parts of Germany. So both the French and their Catalan neighbors have invented “impossible narratives” involving the delivering of holiday goodies to kids. And these continental types go the Anglo tradition one better by having the gift givers be anthropomorphic versions of inanimate objects.

Another circles back:

Yesterday I told my 4-year-old daughter that there is no Santa Claus. I realized I was uncomfortable lying about Santa prior to becoming a mother. I wasn’t naive enough to think that I would never lie to them, but I felt the Santa mythology did not justify actively lying to someone so dependent upon me. We made it through last Christmas without having to address the issue, though she clearly recognized him and knew the general story thanks to her school peers. Around May of this year she asked when Santa comes – as if she belatedly realized an expected guest never arrived.

This Christmas is different, as her understanding of the world has increased. Yesterday she asked when she could see Santa. I told her that we could go to a store and see someone dressed up like Santa but that there is no real Santa. My only hesitation was the risk that she would now “ruin” it for others, but ultimately I decided that was not a good enough reason to lie.

She cried and wanted to know why her friend gets to see Santa. I told her that the friend’s parents decided to tell the friend a story and pretend that there is a Santa. She asked why they lied and played a not-nice trick on her friend. I defended the other parents’ choice while also telling her that I wanted to tell her the truth.

The whole Santa myth seems contrary to the other lessons I am trying to teach my children. My kids are fortunate because they were lucky to be born to the parents they have (not bragging, but being born to two educated parents, in the U.S. and at this point in history, puts them ahead of most). And their material possessions are the result of their parents’ own luck and hard work and the efforts and generosity of family. I hope my kids will use their advantages wisely, work hard and share with others. This is all in addition to my initial reluctance to lie when not absolutely necessary.

In this world, being “good” is not enough. How would I explain that the coats we bought last week are going to kids who may be good but still didn’t make Santa’s list? What about the Heifer International donation she made from her piggy bank for a flock of chicks? If the recipients were good, couldn’t Santa just provide for them? These are small things, sure, but this is the reality of daily parenting. The emphasis on being good/writing a list to a benevolent god-like figure seems completely divorced from teaching our kids to be productive and to share their good fortune.

I admit some pettiness: as a white, working mother with a Chinese, stay-at-home husband, I kinda resent the fact that we are supposed to share gift-giving credit with an old, white guy. Additionally, perpetuating the Santa myth would emphasize the gift part of the holiday season instead of the more meaningful and joyous parts.

We shall see if there are any reports that she has ruined Christmas for all of her classmates. I asked her not to, but she is 4.

Another reader:

We homeschooled our children and never told them lies of the type described. Part of that was our homeschooling mentality; we believe that children learn by observing their parents and those around them, and how they react to life events.  When my youngest was not yet three and my wife was having a miscarriage, he went with us to the midwife and we answered his questions accurately. Telling our kids the whole truth was actually helpful around Christmas (we’re Jews); we told our children that there is no Santa Claus but they had to keep the secret so that their Christian friends would not feel bad.  When they were 5 or 6, we explained to each of them that I was infertile and that we used donor insemination. And when my youngest was diagnosed with Leukemia when he was 7,  we were honest with all of  the kids about everything that we knew throughout the next difficult three years. We’d get into arguments (or as a friend once described it, “developmentally appropriate power struggles”), but honesty was never at issue.

Another:

Enjoying the thread so far.  Thought I’d throw in my story too, which is along the lines of the family that lied to their child about Fruit Loops being a cereal unique to Hawaii.

When I was a kid, about 6 years old or so, a television ad for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus came on television. Naturally, I thought this looked like the greatest show on Earth and wanted to go.  My very quick-witted parents, aware of how much it cost to attend things like this, recognised that the ad was being aired on a cable television channel (WGN-TV, I think).  They informed me nicely that, no, we couldn’t go because we lived in Texas and the circus was only happening in Chicago.  I was disappointed, but understood and didn’t press the point.  It wasn’t until years later, in my late teens that I found out it was all a lie.  Now my parents and I share the joke any time we can’t afford or don’t want to do something:  It’s only in Chicago.

For the record, I loved the Jimmy Kimmel prank.  I also loved believing in Santa but still found ways to justify my doubt by analysing handwritten notes he left for me and counting the carrots I left out for his reindeer.  I loved wondering how on earth the Tooth Fairy didn’t wake me up when she took my teeth and left a beautiful half-dollar under my pillow.  I’m not having kids myself, but I encourage this kind of behaviour, so long as the motives are good or there’s opportunity for a good laugh after the ruse is over.

Another:

This is Miss Elf’s House on the busy bike/jogging path along Lake Harriet in Minneapolis:

Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 12.03.08 PM

We live in Chicago but spend Thanksgiving every year with family in Minneapolis. My daughters love to leave a little note for her each trip. Two years ago, they received a package at Christmas -return address Miss Elf, Lake Harriet, Minneapolis MN – with books for both kids. Their wonder and excitement at this mysterious delivery was a joy to see.

Reality reared its ugly head soon after. That spring break we took a road trip which included a stay at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis (famous for its resident duck population). As we walked to our room my way-too-perceptive younger daughter collapsed in sobs in the middle of the hallway. The old-fashioned locks on the hotel room doors were identical to Miss Elf’s – indicating to her that some mere mortal was behind the Miss Elf fairy tale. I can see how other parents might choose to tell the truth at such a moment, but I lied my ass off trying to persuade her that Miss Elf’s key hole was different and couldn’t possibly be picked up at a hardware store.

Another:

The great-granddaddy of pernicious and evil lies to children has to be the Australian father who convinced his young daughter that the tune played by the traveling ice-cream van (“Greensleaves” it is in Australia) was the signal to the public that the van was out of ice-cream!

And the Dish discussion is spreading:

One of the Parents.com bloggers offers his take here, which I thought you would enjoy. He compiles the biggest lies he’s found himself telling his kids. My favorite lie?

I’m in charge here. I wipe their butts, change their diapers, feed them appetizing meals according to their personal taste preferences like they’re czars….and I’m in charge?


Dec 10, 2013 @ 6:39pm

Ctd …

Readers keep the popular thread going:

I think lying to kids is one of the many things that affluent parents over-think. I promise that the mother who just told her 4 year old there is no Santa that her kid is not sitting around contemplating the social and economic implications of children without coats and where is Santa in their lives. Yes, she will likely tell her peers there is no Santa, but they won’t believe her because they are in the developmental stage of magical thinking. She may know Santa is not real but she likely wonders if her toys come alive when she isn’t watching them, or some similar age appropriate example of magical thinking. Does her Mom plan to root out every magical thought she has and squash it for the sake of feeling like she is honest with her child?

Choosing to out Santa as a fake is a legitimate parenting choice, but it doesn’t need to be wrapped in high minded, socially conscious explanations. “I am uncomfortable lying to my child” will do. We give to an orphanage (yes, they still existing the US) in lieu of exchanging gifts with adult family members, and not once did our kids, who actively participate in the process, question why Santa is not providing for those children. It is possible for them to believe in Santa AND recognize the hardships faced by others.

Another reader:

To me, by far the most disturbing aspect of the Santa “lie” is the moral angle. The lesson is that kids should only be good for a material reward. Forget developing one’s conscience, or doing the right thing, or learning to make ethical choices to become a better human being – it’s about the cash/material payoff.

Another:

My husband and I are so incredibly committed to lying to our children about Santa Claus that we are traveling to Lapland next week with them – they are 9, 6 and 3 – to see the real Santa (as well as the northern lights, and to play with reindeer, etc):

This is mostly about the magic of childhood, storytelling and human imagination, and very little about lying in the true sense of that word. I prefer to think about it as “extending a fantasy” but I also see how it can be taken as lying. It depends on the perceiver of the extension/lie and how they wish to define lying for themselves.

Another:

If you lie because your kid is going to react badly when you tell them Santa isn’t real, they’ll still react badly when they find out it. It will probably be worse for them because it will be public or they’ll be older and even more embarrassed. But maybe it will be better for you because you won’t have to be there and at least it means you don’t have to deal with it right now. Sometimes parenting well means confronting uncomfortable or painful situations with your kids rather than leaving them to deal with it on their own without you. Sure it is easier to tell them you never did drugs or had sex but doing that tells them drugs and sex are shameful and leaves them to navigate those issues by themselves.

Another shifts gears:

This is a great thread.  I’d like to make it even better by tying it in with another great thread, the cannabis closet. Being a long-time casual smoker, I have worried for years about my son asking me about drug use and how I would respond (he is now 11). I have always believed in telling the age-appropriate truth when possible, but using a white lie when required, so was genuinely conflicted on the matter.

Fast forward to election 2012, when Washington state legalized weed. Hooray! During that time, we had many conversations with our son about this issue, basically reiterating the arguments you have made at the Dish. He seemed unfazed about the whole topic. Sure enough, about two weeks later, my kiddo walks in on me as I’m blowing smoke out, pipe and lighter in hand. He looks at me quizzically and asks what I’m doing. While internally freaking out, I calmly say “nothing, we’ll talk about it later.” He looks at me with a blend of mischief and glee, then says: “Moooooom, are you lying to me?” I repeat that we’ll talk about it later at bed time, and to please give me a moment (translate: get the hell outta my bedroom!). The little shit knows he’s busted me and is relishing it!

We had a long conversation at bedtime about marijuana use. I told him I used to smoke pot when I was younger even though it was illegal, framing it as “people sometimes make poor choices”. I then said I had quit years ago (white lie #1), but now that it’s legal, I decided it was OK to use it occasionally (white lie #2 – I smoke almost daily). We ended up having an in-depth conversation about drug use, truth-telling, being safe, and stupid laws that the government sometimes passes. He thought it was all interesting and a bit funny, especially the part where he busted me. In the end, he said he was less concerned that he saw me smoking pot than the idea that I was hiding something from him.

Since then, we often discuss the new legalization and how it will unfold. The whole episode worked beautifully to address and demystify marijuana use for my son. Given the frankness of our conversations, I hope he’ll remember this as he grows into the teen years, when we know most kids start experimenting with drugs. The conversation that night, cuddled up in his bed, was very open, loving, and sweet. In the end I’m glad it happened the way it did.

Another reader:

Two things:

1. The truth is WONDERFUL.
2. The truth can FUCK YOU UP.

We adults can wrestle with the moral implications of this because we’re developed enough to handle some (but not all) of the onslaughts that the truth brings down on us. We’ve felt the highs and the lows of unvarnished truths. We’ve had valuable life experiences that eventually translated into wisdom. We’ve got perspective. Kids don’t have that. Padding the truth is fine, but it’s not always enough. Sam Harris’s one exception was a lie, not an evasion. And that’s fine. Telling a tiny person who has no concept of human depravity that there are people who cut each other’s heads off and cause them to be dead forever is a HARSH fucking trip.

But you don’t have to wallow in it and fuck with their minds to amuse yourself. Just don’t be a dick. Simple enough.

One that note:

Speaking of lying to kids, I always loved this one from “Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey”:

One thing kids like is to be tricked. For instance, I was going to take my little nephew to Disneyland, but instead I drove him to an old burned-out warehouse. “Oh, no,” I said. “Disneyland burned down.” He cried and cried, but I think that deep down, he thought it was a pretty good joke. I started to drive over to the real Disneyland, but it was getting pretty late.

One more reader:

The only truth you will ever tell your kids that remains absolutely true forever is: I love you. I will always love you. There’s nothing you can do to change that. That’s the big Truth, and it’s not as easy to get through to your kids as you think. That’s the Truth that’s going to get your kids coming to you when they’re in trouble. That’s the Truth that’s going to keep them coming home.