Is It Ever OK to Lie to Your Kids?

All parents lie to their kids, claims a columnist writing for “Daddy Files” on Facebook [reprinted as “19 Lies Parents Tell Their Kids” at 5/12/14]

Says who?

The writer-father, Aaron Gouveia, lists a number of lies (19 total) which he claims all parents do (if you don’t, you’re a liar, he says), lies which are entirely justified.


A child’s pet fish dies. You tell the child it’s only asleep, you run to the pet store and replace the fish. No harm done, claims Gouveia.

Why is it necessary to lie about this? Death is part of life. For fish, it comes sooner than for humans (most of the time). Why not introduce the child to death as soon as possible, based on whatever the child’s intellect will allow?

Some would say, “He’s only a kid. You’ve got to spare his feelings.” By shielding  a child from an objective fact of life — that all good things eventually come to an end –from what precisely are you sparing him? From reality? And is this a good thing?

Lying might spare the parent the unpleasant task of delivering bad news; but I still don’t see how this is for the benefit of the child.

“Your mom and I were just … wrestling.” Gouveia claims this is the proper way to handle telling a kid you and your spouse were having sex, if the child happens to see you doing it.

It’s plainly absurd to try and explain sex to a child if the child is too young to understand, or doesn’t yet need to know. But that doesn’t mean you have to fabricate, either.

You could say, “Mommy and Daddy were just having some private time.” Or some equivalent. Lying isn’t necessary, and it will only make matters worse. It will confuse the child. Maybe your son or daughter cannot comprehend sex, but he or she can comprehend wrestling, the activity displayed on the computer or television an older sibling or parent was watching. Whatever the child sees you doing when you’re having sex, it’s not that. What do you think it does to the child to know you’re not telling the truth?

“We won’t let anything happen to you.” Gouveia claims this is a lie, because no parent can absolutely guarantee this. That’s arguably true. But the fact remains that a reliable, responsible parent can do an awful lot to protect a child — almost everything required, in fact. Children of responsible parents are (arguably) safer than adults, which is why so many adults yearn for some kind of a protector to watch over them.

If your child becomes frightened about something realistic, such as crime, it’s an opportunity to show the child the things you do to protect yourselves — locks, alarms, what have you. “This makes us safer,” you can explain in reassuring tones. The point is: There are ways to reassure without lying.

Gouveia seems to assume that since you cannot do the impossible, you should promise it anyway — knowing full well it’s a lie. Gee, that sounds like just about every politician I know. Is that the role model for parents, seriously?

“Oh honey, this tastes delicious.” It’s an example of lying to your spouse that dinner tastes good, when it doesn’t. Once again, Gouveia endorses it.

First of all, you don’t have to say anything. Second, you can constructively criticize and use it as an example of rational role modeling for your child. Or, you can save the discussion — if one is needed — for a time when the child isn’t present. Lying is the easy way out, the short-term solution requiring no thought or personal responsibility whatsoever on the liar’s part.

“We’re all out of ice cream.” Gouveia cites this as a necessary lie, because it’s too late for the child to be eating ice cream, even though the parents will be eating it after the child goes to bed.

Again, why lie? If there are rational reasons for the child not being allowed to eat something, those reasons should be proudly explained and enforced. Parents are adults, and have different needs and requirements from a child. It’s OK and not hypocritical to acknowledge this fact.

Secrecy and deception are hard to maintain within a household — about ice cream, or anything else; and once the child catches on that the parents lied about ice cream being in the house, he or she will naturally wonder what else the parents are lying about.

You can read all of Gouveia’s article for itself and get the idea.

The whole concept here boils down to what I call the “Santa Claus” premise. No, I’m not against the fun and festivity of Christmas, including the Santa Claus gift-giving rituals; mythology is fine, so long as we don’t teach it as fact or truth.

We lie to kids about Santa Claus because — most of us think — the ideal in life is to get stuff for free without any effort, all as a gift, provided by some benevolent figure who can manufacture the impossible. And then we let them figure out the truth when they’re old enough.

This is more sadistic than I can say.

First of all, it isn’t the ideal to get stuff for free without exerting effort. The failure to see this is what leads millions of people to go through their lives resentful and even hateful because they must toil, think, and work in order to achieve and maintain what’s valuable (mental or material).

We shouldn’t be assuming this is the ideal in the first place; and we shouldn’t be lying about it, on top of it.

Yet many parents, I suspect, will nod in agreement with the nonsense spouted in this article. “Life sucks, and it’s best to shield our children from this fact for as long as we can.” Lying is practical, according to this mentality, because by mouthing the words that something isn’t so, we can actually make it not so.

Wow. No wonder the world as a whole, and the lives of millions of people, are so interpersonally and psychologically dysfunctional. With the right kind of thinking fostered first in childhood, and throughout adulthood, it need never have been so.

My hat is off to the parents who don’t operate on what passes for self-evident folk wisdom in this sort of article. These parents are some of the unsung heroes of our culture.


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