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When is it okay to lie to children?

By Alice Bradley

“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.

Alice Bradley
About the Author

Alice Bradley

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

...

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

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SuburbanCorrespondent
Guest

All the time. As much as possible. As in just a minute ago, when I told my 5-year-old girl that I was “working.” But, nope, I was reading your blog. So, shoot me. And knowing when to tell them the truth about things like the Easter Bunny, etc., really depends on the individual child. I knew my 5-year-old had no qualms about hearing that she was right, the Easter Bunny wasn’t real. So that’s okay. And I had no qualms telling her to lie to her little sister until she figured that fact out for herself. Life is complicated. But… Read more »

Fabs
Guest
Fabs

I struggle with this every holiday; St. Patrick’s Day practically killed me because the kids came home from school talking about Leprechaun traps. WTF? Now we are making up stories about Leprechauns sneaking into our house???? Then the kids have so many questions about these made up things (Easter Bunny, Santa, etc.), that we make up more lies. Honestly, I am looking forward to when they are older and are smart enough to figure out these things aren’t real.

Fawn
Guest

Y’know Alice, I wouldn’t call the situations you bring up in the last paragraph lying by omission. Are we lying every time we don’t tell people the full story? I don’t think so; it’s only “lying by omission” if the unrevealed facts would change a person’s decisions, opinions, or actions in a material way. I’m sure it’s enough for Henry to know you’re sad for him to be able to empathize with you; he doesn’t need to know more than that to be able to give you a hug. As for the other kinds of lies, my girl is only… Read more »

katie
Guest
katie

My Dad asked me if I ever saw a baby pigeon and when I said no, he told me that is because baby pigeons are rats and they go through a process very similar to butterflies when they become pigeons. I believed this and educated my friends about it until I was twelve.

The Other Liberal Professor
Guest
The Other Liberal Professor

I lie to my kids regularly, in a sarcastic way, and they both completely get it (and if they don’t, I explain it to them). My 3-year-old son found a box of SweetTarts in my purse. He pulled them out and shook them, and then he asked me what they were. I told him: “A box of little rocks.” Within ten seconds he replied, smiling, “No, they are candy. See the little candies on the edge of the box?” My husband does this even more than I do, and my kids occasionally come to me to find out if Daddy… Read more »

edj
Guest

Your last paragraph isn’t talking about lying, but about giving our children the amount of information that they can handle.
As for lying, well, let’s not call it that. Let’s call it creative parenting. Doesn’t that sound better?

islaygirl
Guest

I agree with edj. With difficult topics, I try to be honest, but only give her the barest bones of information. If she asks for more after that, I’ll go to the next step. A friend of ours, another mommy, was killed in a car accident over Thanksgiving, so we had a lot of opportunity to practice that.
But random lying, no. I ~do~ feel funny about Santa, but we perpetuate the myth. (Though it was really tempting to be truthful when she was terrified of this guy coming down the chimney in the middle of the night …)

marymuses
Guest

As a nanny, I tell the truth about serious things that the kids can handle (yes, people do die in wars, yes, some children don’t have food to eat every day), and when I can’t provide a full explanation (due to the subject matter being too mature for them or it just being something they don’t need to be privy to), I will tell them that it’s something that’s kind of hard for kids to understand. Surprisingly, they have not yet asked me WHY MARY WHY MARY WHY is it hard for kids to understand? I’m treasuring the days that… Read more »

steph
Guest

I have a friend who told her kids McDonalds was only open on the weekends. “No, honey, we can’t go to McDonalds today. It’s Thursday. It’s closed.” Ingenious! Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do, right?

Mauigirl
Guest

I am all for “lying” if it keeps a child from worrying about something or protects him or her from a truth that is too scary at their age. I remember being terrified when I heard on the news that the Chinese had the hydrogen bomb when I was 9 or 10 years old. My mother told me not to worry because they didn’t have the ability to get the bomb to us, something about not having the right planes. It was probably totally made up (and certainly untrue within a short time, if not) but it comforted me and… Read more »

Marcy
Guest

This has been on my mind a lot lately (my son is barely 2.5 months). I am a firm believer in the Montessori philosophy, though one of the things they advocate is that children can’t handle anything fantasy-related till they’re 4-5 yrs old and can distinguish reality from fiction. So, no fairy tales, no Santa Claus, etc. I’m debating whether I want to stick to this strictly, or if reading some Dr Seuss from time to time would really do much harm. I don’t think hubby and I will do the traditional Santa Claus deal with our son, though then… Read more »

Fayomeara
Guest

Well, let me tell you that this issue will get a lot more complicated in the years to come. I have two sons, 13 and 16. How honest should one be when it comes to information about stuff that may be appropriate or at least tolerable for adults but not necessarily for teens. Or about stuff we may have done when we were their age….. I’d like to hear the parents of teenagers weigh in on this.

Fairly Odd Mother
Guest

Well, along with Santa, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny (which, also, fell this year to reason—why is the bunny so much less believable than the Tooth Fairy???), I’ve also told this one: when we are shopping, and the kids fall in love with a stuffed animal or doll, I tell them that the toy ‘lives’ at the store with the others and we can’t take it home. My 7 year old is catching on though. And, just for the record, I don’t think of Santa as ‘lying’ per se. I think it helps kids believe the unbelievable. I… Read more »

Schnozz
Guest

I think it depends on the kid you have. I was a pretty smart little kid with a sharp memory, but I was still a little kid–in other words, I was bright enough to get all concerned about Santa breaking into our house, but not bright enough to realize, HEY IDIOT, YOUR PARENTS ARE LYING TO YOU. I really took that stuff to heart, and I’m very glad my parents had a general anti-lying policy (they would never threaten me and say that some awful thing was going to happen just because I didn’t eat my dinner or something). They… Read more »

MystikMamma
Guest

Of course I do. I believe there are topics and situations that are not meant for children. I believe there is a time and place for certain ideas to be discovered. I also believe that in time all things will avail themselves as they need to be. If choosing to hold back the truth is better at that moment, then this is my choice. I am a child survivor of sexual abuse. I have seen and experienced things that children should not have to go through. As a parent of two young boys, I struggle with what is appropriate and… Read more »

Lauxa
Guest

What? You’re lying to your son and telling him that humans can’t fly?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWF8KV4IW5o
Probably a good choice for now…

Sheryl
Guest
Sheryl

As new parents (a phrase almost always followed by an illustration of a monumental boo-boo) we decided right from the get-go we would tell our child the Truth about Santa. There would be no LIES about Santa and his flying reindeer! So we told her the truth. No Emily, there is no Santa Claus! We were brave, and strong. We should have been on Oprah. And then, a few months later she mentioned something about Santa, because she had completely forgotten the truth. So we dutifully corrected her! Again! And then, a few more times! To speak forth the truth,… Read more »

Frankie
Guest

I never lie to my kid. About anything. Ever. OMG! I am SO lying!!!! I lie to my kid about almost EVERYTHING!!! See, I just lied to you! I am incapable of telling the truth! Help! Ok, I like “creative parenting”. I will hold on to Santa long after he catches on. Tooth fairy, too. And probably the Easter Bunny, although that big goofy rabbit kind of creeps me out. But he has heard nothing but the truth on issues like “where did I come from?” and ” what happened to that little girl?” and “what will happen if I… Read more »

Rose
Guest

Again, I have no children. But then again, I was a child somewhere in the not too distant past and what my parents usually did was let me figure out the truth on my own. That and they did a lot of “I don’t know, what do you think?” or made me look it up in the dictionary, encyclopedia, etc. I think this was a great service to me and made me realize that if you want the facts, ma’am, and only the facts, that you have to figure it out for yourself and shouldn’t rely on people to tell… Read more »

Jennifer
Guest

We do Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, and we’ll probably do the Tooth Fairy. I don’t consider that lying. I never thought my parents had lied to me. Actually, I loved that they had given me years of Santa and the Tooth Fairy. My childhood was more magical because I had those fantastic characters to think about. I don’t lie to my son about other things. Obviously I do not discuss war, torture and the deathtoll in Iraq with him. He’s only three. Sheesh. As for the crying, I normally don’t cry in front of him, but he has… Read more »

Tamar Smith
Guest
Tamar Smith

I don’t have any issues about the little lies parents tell their kids. Can you have chocolate? No, you can’t, there isn’t any more. Why did I lie? Because I want to eat it later while I’m watching Lost. Now, that has nothing to do with helping my child accept real life – when she’s had some cookies and I don’t want her to have anymore, I just tell her, no honey, you’ve had two already, no more tonight. I never lie about how I feel, I don’t lie about MOST things – but there are little things I fib… Read more »

Sonja
Guest

I haven’t really lied yet, but I kind of want to start. I have omitted some truth, mostly about death. Occasionally there’s a dead animal on the road or something, and my 2 year old daughter says, “What’s that?” and I said, “It’s a goose!” and keep on walking, not mentioning the fact that the goose is dead. I guess that’s kind of like lying. I just know that if I introduce the death concept to her, I’ll be talking about nothing else for the foreseeable future, and I’m not really up for that right now.

dgm
Guest

We don’t “do” the Santa myth, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, etc. My husband calls this “preaching Santaism.” And yet our kids still find a way to have a rip-roaring time on every holiday. We never sat them down and had a talk with them, but if they asked point-blank “is Santa real?” we didn’t lie. The funny thing is that my daughter has never been a believer (she is the analytical one) and she went through a phase where she got pissed every time people (esp. adults) spoke of Santa to her because she knew he wasn’t real.… Read more »

Kimmers
Guest

I think the lies that you tell to enhance your children’s childhood are ok. I will definitely keep Santa, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy going for as long as my kids will buy it. I don’t remember ever feeling resentful toward my parents for giving me those fantasies, and I have a lot of great Christmas morning memories that I wouldn’t trade for anything. If my (as yet hypothetical) kids ever asked me about something that I felt wasn’t age appropriate, I’d probably try to simplify it down to a level I thought they would accept without being… Read more »

joe
Guest
joe

oh, i have to side completely with MystikMamma. When children ask about Buddha, people easily say “that’s what some people believe.” It is possible to do this with myths and fables and ALL other ideas we may not share. and, after all, we cannot prove a negative. does St. Nicholas/Santa Claus not exist because we’ve never met him? do atoms not exist because I cannot see them? The universe may or may not be literally held together by threads. I don’t believe we’ve yet had the final answer on that one (most of us are familiar with one of the… Read more »

DQ
Guest
DQ

What about the Brothers Grimm fairy tales? They are “lies,” but we introduce them into our children’s lives as equal literature to picture books (“dog, tree, etc.”). Fantasy and folklore and legends are things that seem to have gone by the wayside as we proceed with fervor into the digital age of data and more data. Facts! Data! Truths! These are our new deities. I think an active imagination and folklore are wonderful aspects of childhood, and I lament their disappearance. How can we re-introduce them without feeling like lying?

sozzled
Guest

I’m all about the lying if it makes my job easier (for years my girls believed that on summer evenings the “free music truck” would drive through the neighborhood. I saved a ton of money and lots of tears if they had known he was really the Ice Cream Man. Now that they know the truth they are old enough to decide if they want to spend their OWN hard earned money on ice cream. On topics that matter I do try to be honest without necessarily giving them all the information they are asking for. When my 11 year… Read more »

The Captain
Guest

‘Dad has eyes on the back of his head’ says Dad while driving, sneaking a cheeky smile at Mum.
‘NO you DON’T!’ wails Master 5
Follows a lengthy pause where the possibility is pondered, decided that he just MAY HAVE eyes in the back of his head and desists offensive behaviour.
Why oh why would we give up this fun??
Creative parenting at its best.

ozma
Guest

I do lie a bit but I often exploit her ignorance. So, she’s getting her birthday party a couple months late this year. She thinks birthdays come and go at random intervals and I’m going of going with this since I did not have time to give her a real party with other kids, only a family party. I’ll have time in May a month and a half after her birthday. Now I’m trying to figure out what to tell the other guests. Lie to them? The people at her preschool already think we are serious weirdos. See, once you… Read more »

Rosie
Guest

Yes, I lie to them. No, I do not feel guilty.

Danielle
Guest
Danielle

My twins boys are now 12. We three have had a ball with the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Santa etc. I even remember when the boys were toddlers we would get the big Crane Flys in our home. To me they look like Daddy Long Legs with wings. The boys were terrified even though they’re harmless. I told them they were fairies. We didn’t go into details and thank goodness they never found a dead one but even at 12 we smile at that. Not only did we do the Santa thing, they would write letters to Santa (I… Read more »

LiteralDan
Guest

If anything, I’m usually TOO honest with my 4-year-old, and I fear I may be sucking the imagination and wonder from his childhood.
However, if I could only get paid for the blogs I read and such, then I wouldn’t feel so bad letting my son believe that I really am “working” whenever I’m on the computer (like SuburbanCorrespondent said above).

Inzaburbs
Guest

I’m with Rose on this one. I just let *them* tell *me* what the “truth” is as often as possible.
A conversation from five minutes ago, while helping build a school for a toy turtle:
“Now I need to make some chairs. Mommy, do turtles sit on chairs?”
“Hmmm, what do you think? Do turtles sit on chairs?”
“(thinks)…they do at turtle school!”
Santa Claus? The Easter Bunny? Same conversation!

Lisa C
Guest

Fantasy and myth are so IMPORTANT to a child’s cognitive development. You might as well decide that you’ll never read your child a fiction novel. I totally agree with your choice to tell the truth rather than be lazy. I want to do that, too. I want them to know they can’t have everything..even if I COULD get it for them. And I tell my kids I have powers, too. Unfortunately, they already know not to believe me, but Daddy…well, Daddy really DOES have powers. What can you do?