Lying to children

Why do you suppose we lie to children? It’s a complex matter, to be sure; for a good essay raising many of the factors, see this by Paul Graham.

I think it is partly to protect them; partly because the truth is too complicated; partly to preserve our own illusions about them and the world; and, of course, partly because we want to mask our own ignorance!


6 thoughts on “Lying to children

  1. Kleiner

    This post made me think of Plato, who talks extensively about lies (unrealities, imitations) in the Republic (other places too, Statesman, etc). What is interesting is that Plato asserts that while all lies fall short in some way or another – some lies are ‘good/true lies’ and some lies are ‘bad lies’. The point is central, I think, to Plato. Plato (and Aristotle) are both rightly convinced that moral habituation occurs long before the agent can actually understand what they are doing and why. For this reason, culture becomes all-important.

    The ‘good lies’ are those which will habituate virtue in the youth, or are lies that will make the city more just. He has in mind not just the ‘noble lie’ (about being born into a class) but also, more importantly, art in general. For Plato, all art (music, stories, plastic arts, myths) are lies. But some are ‘good lies’ – they teach virtue (courage, generosity, etc). He is actually quite specific about what kind of music to listen to in order to habituate courage, etc.

    The ‘bad lies’ are lies that will habituate vice. Plato is particularly worried about bad lies concerning the gods. We must not, he says, portray the gods in our stories as being vengeful or greedy, for this will give the people some license to act that way themselves.

    We talk a fair amount about Plato’s distinction in my Aesthetics class. The example I always use is the Santa Claus example. I actually think the Santa Claus lie (at least as usually told) is a bad lie. It teaches children to be good only for the sake of some reward, only because “he sees you when you are sleeping and knows when you’re awake”. The Santa Claus story tells a bad lie about gifts and the nature of gift-giving – that gifts are earned or merited, that gift giving is actually an economic exchange (exchanging good behavior for gifts) rather than a moment of an-economic (and indeed ‘beyond’ justice) freedom. I think Plato would think it a bad lie too (think of the Ring of Gyges story).

    I am pretty sympathetic to Plato here. Not only do I think some lies are permissible to tell children, I actually think we should lie to our children. We should tell them good lies, which is to say, we should share with them myths, stories, art, and music that habituate right character. (CS Lewis talks about something similar when he speaks of the “baptism of the imagination”.) But I also think we should deliberately shield children from “bad lies”.

    Of course, the trick is discerning the good lies from the bad ones. Some people draw the lines rather too narrowly for my tastes (you always read about some Christians who won’t let their kids read Harry Potter). Some parents won’t tell their kids any lies (think of the single mother in Miracle on 34th Street). For my part, I plan on lying to my kids quite often!

    One more point – it might be that lying is essential to the task of philosophy. Plato lies to himself on occasion – I am thinking of passages in both the Apology and the Phaedo where he tells a myth, immediately questions its accuracy, but then asserts ‘that it is better to believe such things rather than not to’. A recurring lie in Plato is the ‘true lie’ that we can actually discover truth, that philosophical exercises can really lead to wisdom. Plato never really makes an argument for this, but it is one of those things that is ‘better for us to believe’ lest we become misologues (haters of reason).

    PS – For people interested in Plato and the role of culture, education, and lies, I am teaching a PHIL 4900 Special Topics course in the fall where we will spend the entire semester reading the Republic. It is a great opportunity to get to intimately know one of the truly great books of philosophy, education, politics and culture.


  2. shaunmiller

    I’m wondering more of what Kleiner considers good lies and bad lies. He considers Santa Claus a bad lie. What would be good lies?

    The concept of lying brings to my mind an episode of South Park. In this episode, Cartman is hoping to more money from the tooth fairy, but he later finds out that it was a lie. Kyle finds out too but he’s so dismayed that he questions everything around him. He questions his religion, he questions if this Earth isn’t some parallel earth, he even reads Descartes and questions his own existence. What’s interesting is that lying in this circumstance has made Kyle want to do some research and find out the truth for himself.

    Is that what philosophy is? I could imagine Descartes thinking to himself, “you know, the Scholastic tradition has lied to us, I better see what the truth is.” And then Spinoza comes forward and says, “You know, Descartes was lying a bit, perhaps to himself. It’s up to me to discover the truth.” And so on and so on. If so, then philosophy’s goal is to show how previous philosophers have lied (if not to society, them to themselves) and it’s up to these new philosophers to come up with the truth.

    On the other hand, I could see someone being lied to and s/he doesn’t care. Maybe that’s why people don’t want to do philosophy is because they’re being lied to, but they don’t care. They’re happy in their “own little world.”

    I could be wrong about this, but it’s just a thought.


  3. Kleiner

    I should say, following Plato I am using “lie” here in a pretty broad way. He means something like ‘unreality’ or even ‘imitation’ (this is why all art is a lie for Plato, since art imitates nature). So ‘lie’ here is not exactly equated with ‘untruth’, since some imitations might be ‘true imitations’ while others might be ‘false imitations’ (but they are both ‘imitations’ or ‘lies’).

    Here is the trick – Plato thinks good lies can lead us to right beliefs (though probably not knowledge), in particular right moral beliefs.

    Off the top of my head, here are a few ‘good lies’ to have circulating in our culture:
    ‘Cheaters never win.’
    ‘If you work hard, you can accomplish anything.’
    ‘Everything is going to be all right’ (told to a crying toddler when scared at night).

    Now, for Plato it is true that the philosophers are the only ones who move ‘behind’ the lies/imitations – since they are the only ones who grasp the Forms (that is, grasp the real). In the Republic, then, it is the philosophers who will judge poetry and art. Since they know the real Good (the Form), they are the only ones who are in a position to judge which imitations/lies are ‘true imitations’ and which are ‘false’. So wisdom and power are unified in a ‘dictatorship of the wise’. It is a very paternalistic view of governance, one in which every message (‘lie’) in the culture would have been vetted by the philosophers.

    The presumption here, of course, is that philosophy is esoteric, that very few will actually be able to become wise. Plato presumes (probably rightly I think) that most people will just ‘eat what they are fed’, and won’t realize that they are ordering their lives according to lies (good or bad ones). In fact, with the ‘noble lie’, he goes to great lengths to make sure they don’t find out they are being lied to (because once you know something is a lie, it can no longer motivate you). The esotericism is necessary for the good of the whole city anyway (thinks Plato), since you can’t well have a functioning city with everyone being a philosopher – most will need to be assigned more ‘practical’ duties such as being craftsman, soldiers, and (at Glaucon’s insistence) wine makers. Americans tend to deplore this kind of robust paternalism because of our love of freedom (understood as a lack of interference). But we should mind Plato’s argument in the Republic, where he suggests that democratic love of freedom invariably results in tyranny.

    Aren’t families dictatorships (hopefully dictatorships of the good)? Here is the point. If you tell your children the ‘truth’ ( “Well, honey, sometimes cheaters do get ahead in life” or “Well, lots of times you can work as hard as you can and still fail” or “Actually honey, if I have to read one more board book to you I think I’ll kill myself” ) then it is going to be very difficult for your children to become properly habituated. It is good that they believe these ‘good lies’, since it provides a secure and supportive environment for their moral and intellectual habituation (they are more likely to develop moral and intellectual virtues instead of vices). By the time they are old enough to realize they are lies, they will already be largely habituated. We develop our moral habits long before we can ask moral questions (why is that good, etc).

    What I propose is that we philosophers should all agree to believe a ‘good lie’ – that knowledge is possible, that philosophical ‘exercises’ can culminate in some kind of wisdom. If we don’t believe this lie, we will quickly become like puppies who tug and pull for the enjoyment of the fight, but who are really (though secretly) misologues (haters of reason). In particular, that ‘good lie’ should be pushed in lower division philosophy classes. If you start doing philosophy with Nz, you’ll never be able to really read Aristotle, you’ll never be able to understand (in a lived sense) what it means to say ‘all philosophy begins in wonder’. I think students should only read Nz after a substantial introduction (several courses) in the history of philosophy and in philosophy as a way of life traditionally practiced (most philosophers in the west, but not all, have believed the good lie that knowledge is possible). Too many students ‘learn’ that ‘everything is relative’ in junior high or high school these days. And what kind of intellectual characters do such ‘bad lies’ produce? I would argue that it produces intellectually viceful characters – apathetic, entitled, and lazy students who have no desire whatsoever to live the ‘life of the mind’.


  4. Non-Liar

    I personally have never lied to any child.I explain things to them
    and I tell them that I don’t lie because besides being wrong
    it’s too difficult to do correctly over a long period of time.I also say:
    “Who do you believe the person who has never lied to you or the one who has?”
    Thir answer is obvious.


  5. Kleiner

    I wish Non-Liar had taken up the distinction between ‘good lies’ and ‘bad lies’ (perhaps better called ‘good myths’ and ‘bad myths’). Does Non-Liar take his kids to go see Santa Claus? Does he tell them the Easter Bunny left eggs with candy? Does the tooth fairy come? Does he tell his hyper-imaginative 4-year old boy, ‘There are no such things as dragons, live in the real world.’? Does he tell them ‘Everything is going to be all right?’ Does he tell them that ‘Cheaters never win’? If so, he is telling them lies/myths – even if they turn out to be ‘good myths’ (myths which encourage imaginative play, kindness, moral virtue, intellectual virtue, compassion, etc).
    Watch ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ – isn’t the child whose single mom is ‘totally honest’ with her being robbed of something, and in that being stunted in some way?

    I don’t want this to devolve into a parenting column here (though philosophy has a lot to say about parenting, and I think all future parents should read Aristotle Nico Ethics and try to shape their parenting around that view of habituation), but:

    a) Does ‘Non-Liar’ tell his upset kids at night, “You know, I’m gonna be honest with you, it may not be all right.’ ?? Actually, a traditional English (not sure if Anglican or Catholic) bedtime prayer is just this brutally honest: ‘Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.’
    So maybe I am just a softy, while Non-Liar is willing to be upfront about cold and harsh realties.

    b) I appreciate that Non-Liar tries to explain things to his kids, and of course I think this is a good idea in some instances and as they grow older. But we must remember that they are kids! Which is to say, they are not developed rational agents. (Is there anything so fruitless as trying to ‘reason with’ a 2 year-old?). They don’t know what they are doing, don’t know why, and often (particularly at young ages) cannot comprehend explanations that hope to parse the complexities of life. This is one of the principle points in Aristotle’s Ethics – you must habituate right character long before the child can possibly understand what they are doing and why.

    c) I don’t have a crisis of confidence in my parents, despite the fact that they told me lies/myths (silly things like Santa Claus, but also excessively simplified moral lessons). I know they said these things for my own good in order to habituate discipline, caring, etc.

    d) I don’t mean to question Non-Liar’s honesty here, but I think everyone tells lies/myths, because our culture tells lies/myths. The question for Plato is not this: ‘Will we tell lies/myths?’ It goes without saying that every culture does that, in their art, their music, their stories, etc. Rather the question is this: ‘Which lies/myths will we tell, and which ones are the good ones?’

    One last note to add: I am not altogether convinced that lying is always wrong. I am no Kantian.



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