Whenever I hear the ice-cream truck coming up the street, I laugh thinking about a story. Eli, our 19-year-old, has a friend that was told that the ice cream truck only plays its song when it’s out of ice cream. Brilliant parents? Perhaps. But it brings up the question: Is it okay to lie to children? Definitions of lies and the reason they are wrong is a much bigger project than one blog-post allows. So I am not asking is it okay to lie, but only this: Is it more acceptable to lie to children than to other adults?
I think adults lie to children with copious frequency and ease. Adults who would not lie to other adults at all. There are different types of lies adults typically tell to children. 1) Lies of kindness (adults tell these to each other a lot, too) such as “Of course I can tell it’s a painting of a horse”, and “Yes, that was a funny joke” 2) Lies that are part of adult-generated fantasy in children’s life. “No, that wasn’t me putting the quarter under your pillow!” 3) Lies because adults genuinely feel a child is not ready to deal with something and it needs covering up. “Hooker? No, I think the man on TV was saying that the lady was a booker, that’s someone that likes books”. 4) Lies, of trying to make things easier for ourselves, generally to avoid having to be the bad guy. Lies like, “We have no cookies” or “the pizza man doesn’t deliver here”. A more troubling sub-set of this type is the lie invoking other authority such as “If you do that, the police man will arrest you”. I will focus here on category four. The first three seem much stickier, with two, especially going into murky waters of belief and imagination, and perhaps I will revisit them another time. Four, though , deserve consideration.
Are the type of lies in category four acceptable? First let’s ask this: are they a type of lie that it is acceptable to tell a fellow adult? Do we generally condone lies, even small ones, told to avoid conflict and get people to behave compliantly? I think not. Consider these examples akin to the ones above. My parents are visiting and want to go the steakhouse. I do not. I tell them (falsely) that it has shut down since their last visit. My colleague is texting on her cell phone while she is with children on the playground. I don’t want to be the bad guy, so I tell her (falsely) that I see our boss coming and that our boss is apt to be crazy mad and fire her if she is caught. I think that the consensus is that I have acted wrongly in both of those cases. The only question left, then, is whether there is a relevant difference in the morality of these types of lies when told to children.
Perhaps there is. After all, parents get to do all sorts of things to kids they don’t get to do to other adults. Can we hold other adults down to force them to get shots? Make them take baths or forfeit dessert? Of course not. But it is a mistake to think that we have a right to do those things to our children because they are children or because they are ours. We can do those things to children because it is in their best interest, and we have a responsibility to use our more-developed brains to sometimes compel children to do what they would rather not. Being told these types of lies, though, are not in a child’s best interest any more than they are in an adult’s interest. A child is not harmed by knowing that his parents are not choosing to buy him ice cream. A child is not harmed by knowing that it is her parents, not the police officer, who will provide negative consequences for misbehavior. There does not seem to be any reason that it is more morally acceptable to tell these lies to children than to fellow adults. We do it because we’re tired, we’re weary, and we just want them to get their shoes on and to get into the damn car. That makes it understandable, and forgivable, but it does not make it right.
The morality, though, is not the only reason to stop lying to our kids for convenience. Adults set the tone of relationship with children. We have a special obligation to them that we do not have to other adults to demonstrate correct functioning in the world. Children have no inherent knowledge of the ‘right’ way to converse with people. They make stuff up all the time, and it takes adults to help them learn the distinction between fact and fiction, and how the truth ought to be represented. They learn from you, one way or the other, and they will learn that you have lied. They will find the cookies and learn the pizza-delivery parameters, and someday know the the cops do not bust kids for pinching their little sisters. It is an unrealistic and unfair expectation that your child be honest with you if you lie to her for your own convenience.
So, is it okay to lie to you kids? Only if you want them to lie, too.