When is it okay to lie to children?
“The Easter Bunny’s not real, right?” Henry asked me one night. We had just finished reading a bedtime story, and had moved on to the bedtime deep philosophical discussion.
Without thinking, I replied, “Nah.”
He didn’t say anything.
Crap, I thought. Had I made a grave error? I didn’t think much was at stake, when it came to the Easter Bunny. Easter doesn’t really hold any of the magic and wonder of Christmas—at least, not in this house. I didn’t see why we had to maintain a convoluted story regarding a giant bunny just for some Jelly Bellies in a basket and perhaps a Transformer. (So Easter-appropriate! Just as the Lord transformed, so doth the Autobot!)
“Well, what do you think?” I asked him, and he said, “I don’t know.” Then he changed the subject. But I could hear his little mind-cogs turning.
Henry brought up the Easter Bunny again a few days later, to my mom. She strenuously insisted that the Easter Bunny was real. REAL REAL REAL, don’t listen to your mother. Henry looked at me. My own mother had just called me a liar, in front of my kid! Back to therapy for me!
“I guess some people just believe in him,” I said.
“You don’t,” said Henry. “But I do.” And that was that.
I talked about Santa Claus back in December, and how we had chosen the myth over the reality. I’m more comfortable with that decision now that I’ve seen him make the same choice regarding the Easter Bunny, but still, I don’t feel entirely great about it. If he asked me directly about Santa, I don’t know what I’d say.
I started thinking about lies again when I read the post “Lies I’ve Told My 3-Year-Old”, in the blog “Heading East.” The lies Raul shares involve such fantastic claims as “trees talk to each other at night” and “we are all held together by invisible threads.” I don’t think these are lies, exactly, just fable-like tidbits. I’m not sure I would go so far as to insist these were true, but if they were conveyed in a playful way, if my kid wanted to play along and create his own wild ideas, I think they’re lovely. (Although I wouldn’t ever suggest to any child ever that any human has the ability to fly. I’m paranoid that way.) The response to his post (magnified by a link from Metafilter) was huge, with reactions ranging from admiration to abject horror. Divorced from context, these “lies” could be seen as either affectionate and harmless or permanently scarring. Doesn’t it all depend on what your child is getting out of it?
I tried to think about what other lies I’ve told my son. A few months back Henry’s friend approached me during a playdate with two stubborn Lego pieces that wouldn’t come apart. I did as he asked, and for no apparent reason other than my love of warping children, I stated, “I did that so easily because I have powers.” “Yeah, right,” said Henry’s friend, and then joined Henry in the playroom and whispered, “Does your mother really have powers?” “I don’t think so,” said Henry, and then they were both quiet for a minute. I could hear them thinking, does she? Now, of course, if they had pressed the issue, I would have confessed that my powers are limited to pulling apart tiny Lego pieces. But it didn’t come up again, so I left it. Then a few days later Henry told me that he has powers. One of them, he said, is that he can see any event that happened in the past. “I just shut my eyes, and I can see it right there,” he told me. I don’t know if I can take credit for this idea of his, but I love that he can entertain these thoughts, that he feels like he has special abilities above and beyond the average mortal. If my ridiculous claim nudged him in that direction, I have no problem with it.
There are lies I wouldn’t tell him. If I were crying I wouldn’t pretend I wasn’t. (P.S. this scenario has occurred more times than I wish to count.) If he overheard some grim statistic on the radio, I wouldn’t tell him it was all a funny joke. (“3,000 dead, get it? Ha! Haaaa?”)
I wouldn’t lie just out of laziness, to make my life easier. Part of my job is to help him learn that he can weather disappointments, and if that means telling a more difficult truth (“No, we can’t buy that toy right now”) instead of sidestepping the issue with a lie (“Oops, the store’s closed!”), I’ll choose the truth.
Still, though, in telling these truths, I’m almost certainly lying by omission. I wouldn’t tell him specifically why I was upset, if the truth was too much for him. I wouldn’t provide him with specifics on the war. I would provide him with the information he can handle and no more than that. Those are lies I can live with.
So, your turn. Do you lie to your children? Tell the truth, now.Published April 18, 2008. Last updated April 30, 2017.