I’ve recently been watching Parenthood, a TV drama revolving around the three generations of the fictional Braverman Family, like a less intense version of This Is Us. One thing that’s striking about the show is how often a major plot revolves around the parents lying to the children. When confronted with difficult questions from their children, the first instinct of the parents seems to be to lie.
I find this strategy very strange. It makes me wonder whether this is truly how most parents deal with difficult questions, or whether it’s just a method the writers are using to jump start the narrative.
Why we don’t lie
Largely, my wife and I don’t lie to our kids, and certainly not about anything important. We do this for several reasons.
First, I want my kids to be able to speak to me about important things, and trust that I’ll tell them what I see as the truth. Kids are almost completely dependent on their parents for knowledge, and need to know that, within my limitations, I will share the truth with them. I need to be trustworthy, reliable source of information. After all, if I am going to lie to them when they’re four about where babies come from, why the heck should they believe anything I tell them about drugs when they’re fourteen? If I lie, I’m saying, “Don’t bother coming to me for information. Go to your friends instead.”
Second, a large part of human interactions is based on attachment—being loved, trusted, believed and valued. As a parent, the biggest part of my job is forming a healthy, two-way attachment with my child. Lying to them breaks the bridges of attachment.
Third, lying about important things is simply wrong, giving children a skewed perspective on the world. I expect my children to learn to make their own decision in the world and to be able to weight facts and opinions in making their decisions. But how can they do that if their own parents, the people they’re supposed to be able trust, aren’t actually giving them accurate information?
Fourth, if I lie to my child, it’s essentially saying that lying is acceptable in our relationship. Thus, through my actions I’m indicating that it’s reasonable for my child to lie to me.
Finally, I find it loathsome when parents lie to children simply because the topic is uncomfortable. I’m the adult in the relationship. I should be able to put aside my discomfort in order to do what’s best for my child. Some conversations are difficult, but that’s what I signed up for when I made a kid. My child shouldn’t be held responsible for helping me manage my emotions; I’m responsible for helping to manage theirs.
The fine print
Of course, it’s also true that kids might not be ready for in-depth conversations at a young age. I’m not going to tell a 5-year-old the details of how a Jewish child would be killed by Zyklon B in the Nazi death camps. But if my kid asks what the Nazi’s did wrong, I’ll tell them that they started a war that killed millions, and murdered millions of their own people.
To me, the fact that the child is asking usually means that they’re ready for some sort of answer. The answer I’d give primary school student probably wouldn’t have the same detail as an answer as I’d give a high school student, but that’s true of pretty well every communication, comfortable or not. In both cases, though, my answers would be honest.
I suppose if pushed, there might be some questions I wouldn’t want to answer because I think the answer would be harmful to the child. I’ve never encountered such a question in the wild, but I can imagine some really specific questions that I wouldn’t want to answer. In such as case, I still think I wouldn’t lie to my child, but rather tell them honestly that I was reluctant to answer the question because the answer might give them nightmares.
The Santa question
Of course, in our house, this “don’t lie about the important stuff” also applies to Santa. To an adult, it might seem that lying to a child about Santa is a harmless game, but to a child, Santa certainly falls into the “important stuff” category. To me as a kid, Christmas was the most amazing thing ever, like no other holiday. To lie about the core concept of Christmas seems like a huge betrayal.
A counterargument might be that Santa helps to provide the magic in Christmas, but I don’t really think children need any help with that. The holiday is magical enough without needing to lie about the existence of fictional characters.
In fact, when I was a kid—in fact probably up until I was about twenty-five—the whole world was a source of wonder. Everything were new and breathtaking. I remember being so excited learning that computers had different fonts. In my first week of university, I was delighted to discover I could go swimming for free in the university pool—every day if I wanted to! I remember my awe at seeing a deer on the side of the road, frozen like a statue for ten seconds before it hopped off into the forest.
Watching sunsets, meeting friends, climbing trees, visiting karaoke boxes, walking around downtown, eating a new flavor of ice cream, discovering tiny hairs on my first girlfriend’s stomach, reading about a really neat idea…. When I was young, almost every day, I’d experience something new and exciting.
The world was wondrous and magical. There was no need to add a Santa lie to increase the magic.
My bottom line
Thus, I think it’s generally a bad idea to lie to children. What’s more, I think parents can have just as much fun playing pretend games without lying to children, convincing them that the make-believe is real. I just wish these TV shows would model how a trusting relationship between a parent and kid can be built without the parent lying to their child.