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Lies we tell kids

By Sumay

I took my title from an article my Dad showed me by Paul Graham. It's a good article. Not many nine years olds have probably read it, but perhaps more should. It basically argues that adults should stop lying all the time to their kids. I agree, and this is why...

When I was five I asked my Dad if Santa was real. He looked at me and asked, "Do you want to believe he is real?" I decided that I'd rather know the truth and so he told me Santa was a fictional story, but that many feel the story teaches a deeper truth about the joy of giving. When I lost my first tooth I asked my Mom the same question. She told me the truth...but I still insisted on getting a dollar :)

One thing I liked about this experience is that I had a choice. My parents never told me Santa was real. I like knowing the truth, but I have friends that seem to really enjoy believing in things like Santa. If they want to wake up on Christmas morning with gifts from Santa instead of Mom and Dad...why not?

But what about the practice of teaching fictional stories as fact?


The word "lie" has a negative connotation. Most parents don't consider the telling of "The Santa Claus" to be lying. Many of my adult family members say they told their kids Santa was real because they thought it would help them understand a deeper truth about love and the joy of giving. Is this lying?

Let's look at three definitions for the word "lie" suggested by Google:

  1. A false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive

  2. Something intended, or serving to convey a false impression

  3. Knowingly making a false statement

Simply telling a fictional story doesn't seem to meet any of these definitions. Many of the greatest children books ever written are "fiction" including my favorites by Rald Daul.

Things get tricky when we explicitly teach fictional stories as fact. Perhaps my very favorite Rauld Daul story is "The Witches". The story open's with a boy's grandmother who repeatedly swears to the existence of Witches and details such "facts" as their ability to smell children better after they take a bath. In this case, the grandmother is clearly lying by all three definitions. Unless, of course, she believes in witches herself...a plausible explanation for someone that thinks it appropriate to chain-smoke cigars around children.

A grey area emerges when fictional stories carry a deeper truth. The Santa Clause is a great example. A grownup could plausibly tell a young child that The Santa Clause is real, "a knowingly false statement", but do so without the "intent to deceive". I get that.

I don't feel anything wrong with grownups telling kids stories like The Santa Clause in order to teach"love" and "the joy of giving". However, there may be other ways to teach the same thing. It doesn't seem necessary to me to believe in flying reindeer in order to teach the joy of giving. Kids learn from fictional stories all the time. Most parents don't feel compelled to defend Star Wars as literal truth...although to be honest that would be a way cooler childhood fantasy made reality.

Even better...if you want your kid to experience a belief in magic...why not go with teaching the literal existence of my hero Hermione Granger (I wrote about her here)! On some special day each year you could teach them to wait by the fireplace for a Hogwarts acceptance letter to come flying out! The fiction need not die when the letter fails to arrive! You can simply comfort your grieving child with the reality that they are a Muggle.

Still, there is something to be said for tradition. It's generally acceptable to tell kids that an overweight man can magically break into every Christians house on the planet (assuming their kids are well behaved) in one night. I'm not sure how they would react to parents teaching a child they can learn to levitate objects with a magical stick. Both are clearly lies...but only one is a tradition!

Kids are tough

Another reason the grownups I interviewed lie to kids is to protect them. I instinctively avoid talking to friends about Santa. I don't want to be the one to break the news. But I'm less worried about it now because I think kids are pretty tough.

When I say kids are "tough" I mean we can handle things. Truth hurts sometimes, but like trees, the exposure helps us develop thick skin, so when we go out in the real world we won't get squashed like a bug.

Here is an example of how innocent attempts to protect kids can go wrong. One of my friends has never lost a board game at home. They always find a way to make sure my friend wins. Then my friend's parents tell him how smart they are. This doesn't feel right to me. It also meet all three definitions of lying. What happens when my friend looses a game to someone at school? It ain't going to be pretty.

As I get older my parents have started to tell me things they previously felt were too adult to share. They tell me that if I feel uncomfortable about something, like a movie or story, I should speak up. One simple way to know how much your kid can handle is to simply ask.

Building Trust

The nice thing about always telling your kids the truth is that they learn to trust you. Sometimes it's painful, like when my parents say I could have behaved more appropriately, or could have done better on a homework assignment. Sometimes it takes time to break complex issues down into terms that kids can understand. But taking that time shows us kids that you care, and that builds trust.

Here are some common lies parents tell kids along with alternatives to help us make sense of the world.

  1. Instead of, "Babies are flown in by storks", you can say, "Mom and Dad know a secret way to make babies that we will tell you when you're older".

  2. Instead of, "A monster lives under your bed", you can say, "Please stay in your bed so you can get a good nights rest".

  3. Instead of, "You are so special!" or "You are amazing!", you can say, " must have worked hard on that. Great things are achieved with time and effort".

  4. Instead of, "Grandma is in a happy place looking down on you", you can say, "Grandma has passed away. No one knows for sure what happens after people die, but Grandma lives on in the lives of those she loved and helped during her life"

  5. Instead of, "Mom and Dad know best", you can say, "Mom and Dad don't always know what's best. That is why you are encouraged to share your ideas. However, we need to have the final say."

Without trust, kids might be hesitant to share or ask for help. If they feel need for some advice they should not feel like they have to keep it to themselves. And should not be trying to tackle the problem on their own if they need assistance! If your a parent you got your child's back and if they need help... then they've got to ask for it! When I get back from home and I had a stressful day I feel open to pour out my feelings to my family, I hope every child gets to do that. I do that because I know my family will immediately rush to my aid! That creates a strong bond and makes you truly find the people that are most important in your life.

As for me, I think it would be better to make Santa a fairy tale. This works because everyone knows fairy tales don't exist. It differentiates the physical man coming down the chimney from a lovely fairy tale about the spirit of Christmas. You don't need to destroy the thought of Santa, the tooth fairy, and the Easter Bunny...simply turn them into fairy tales like Cinderella and Snow White! This way I don't run the risk of having my future kids become devastated by a fictional story and hurt their trust in me.

By Sumay - 12/30/2018


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