Sunday, November 4, 2007

Lying to children


Suppose I visit the wife and seven year old daughter of a colleague who has recently died. Now it turns out that the wife is a Christian, and she has told her daughter that her Daddy is now living in heaven with God and the angels. This is very comforting belief for both the wife and the little girl. Daddy hasn’t gone for ever. He’s merely moved to somewhere very nice, somewhere that they too will go in the end.

Now I am an atheist. I don’t believe in God or in any sort of after-life. Suppose that this little girl asks me whether I believe in heaven. What do I say? Do I tell her the truth or do I lie?

Of course, if you happen to believe in God and the angels, you can tell comfortably tell her the truth about what you believe. But if, like me, you don’t believe in any of that, you find yourself facing a dilemma. Do you lie?

I would avoid telling her the truth if I could, perhaps by changing the subject. But I don’t think I could lie. I don’t think I could tell her I believed in God and heaven when I don’t. Even if the result of my not lying is that it shakes her own confidence in her belief.

Which at first sight is very odd, because if she were to ask me whether I believed in Santa and the elves living at the North Pole, I’ll happily lie. In fact, I’ll go out of my way to embellish the fib – by helping her put out Santa’s mince pie and Rudolph’s carrot at bedtime, and then leaving bite-marks in the mince pie and gnawing the carrot once she’s gone to bed.

But if she asks me whether I believe in God and Heaven, I would find it very difficult to tell her what I consider to be a fib. Despite the fact that this little girl derives an extraordinary amount of comfort, and even some happiness, from that lie. Far more, in fact, than she derives from the fib about Santa and the Elves.

Doesn’t that make me a hypocrite? Aren’t I operating with a blatant double standard? I’ll go out of my way to lie about Santa and the Elves. Yet I turn into Mr Principle when it comes to lying about God and the angels.

Well, may be not. As children grow up, we create illusory worlds for them to inhabit: little bubbles of deceit. One of these bubbles of belief is about goblins and fairies, another is about Santa and Rudolph. These bubbles soon pop, of course, We can’t sustain them into adult life. But, while they last, they are charming fantasies.

The trouble with the religious bubble, from the point of view of most atheists, is that it doesn’t always pop. Many of us continue to inhabit it throughout our entire lives. And it can dramatically shape our lives, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

Six arguments for lying to children

1. Educational fibbing. My daughter and I often tell each other fibs. I say, “Did you know that there are fairies living under our garden shed?” To which she responds, but Daddy, why can’t we see them?” To which I answer, “They only come out at night.” To which she says “But then how do you know they are there?” and so on. The more we play this sort of game, the better she gets at figuring out when she’s being lied to.

Lying games are good way of showing children that, armed with nothing more than their own power of reason, they can often figure out what’s true for themselves.

Educational fibbing games can help them develop some intellectual and emotional maturity. They won’t be afraid to think or ask a question. It gives them a course in self-defence that will come in very handy when they are confronted by the corporate, religious and other psychological manipulators and snake-oil salesmen later on.

If we want our children to grow into good truth-detectors, these are the sort of skills we need then to acquire.

2. It makes them happy.

3. Gives them an appreciation of what it’s like to be a true believer. Even after the bubble of belief has burst, the memory of what it was like to inhabit it – to really believe - lingers on. The adult who never knew that is perhaps kind of missing out.

4. And we can vicariously enjoy their pleasure. Having children around who believe in Santa transforms Christmas – you can half inhabit their kitsch fantasy world for a few days.

5. Useful for controlling behaviour. “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, he’s going to find out who's naughty and nice”. Santa is watching what you are doing even when Mummy and Daddy are not.

6. “Protecting” them from potentially upsetting or damaging truths.

Three arguments against lying to children

1. They will learn not to trust you. Crying wolf – won’t believe you when it really matters.

2. We are teaching them that lying is acceptable.

3. We can instill false beliefs that may hurt them later in life.

And, incidentally, some of the lies we tell we don’t ourselves properly register as lies:

• “You can be anything you want to be!” (cobblers, of course)
• “Looks don’t matter!" (perhaps they shouldn't, but they do)

23 comments:

Bob said...

I've often thought about this question and I think it's probably more important than people realise.

The last time was just yesterday. I was in a piece of children's theatre here in Worcester, as the Winter Wizard in a play called Jill-in-the-Box. A big part of these plays is about convincing children that their communal incantations have a magical effect upon on stage elements (opening the magic Jill-in-the-box and so on).

Not only that, but the stage manager's daughter asked me outright "Are you real wizards?"

Faced with the question straight out I hedged my bets and said that "We have all be trained as magicians". Given the ambiguity of magician as a theatrical illusionist versus an actual practitioner of real magic, this was not a lie. On the first interpretation of 'magician' it was true (I had to do that trick where the magician stands on a box holding up a tubular sheet and then when the sheet dropped is dropped I had been replaced by the person inside the box, and I myself was relocated inside the box).

I really don't like it when I can't hedge my bets like that. I have lied before but I'm not comfortable doing it. Perhaps if I digest the reasons for lying that you offer, then I'll be able to aim my lying in the direction of achieving those purposes, and hopefully without it just being a rationalization to alleviate my skeptic's guilt.

anticant said...

In making sense of the external world, children have the complex task of reconciling the total egocentricity of infancy – their sole reality – with growing awareness of the ‘other’ beyond themselves. The behaviour of their significant adults is crucial in this process. If the child experiences them as trustworthy, he will be much more self-confident than if he is lied to.

I believe that children are instinctively aware of the nature of fairy stories, and make-believe, which play such a large role in their imaginations. They enjoy colluding with adults in the make-believe of Christmas, even when they no longer believe in the actual existence of Santa Claus, because it is a delightful game that makes everyone happy.

Religion is a more difficult area, because it consists of fairy stories which many adults believe are literally true and wish the children to accept also – not least because the concept that there is Nothing beyond death is a very frightening one for many people. But there is no need for those of us who don’t believe to lie about it: surely we can say ‘Well, some people believe this is true, and others don’t.’

Children often perceive religion is myth, too. As a child, I had a conventionally religious, churchgoing upbringing, but even then I didn’t take it literally – so much of the scriptures solemnly read out in church each Sunday were obvious nonsense and at best only allegorical. A friend told me that as a child aged about nine, he had asked his mother “Do grown-ups really believe this stuff?” [I have forgotten what he said her reply was!]

Lying to children is wrong in principle, and harmful in practice, because it teaches the child that lying is an OK strategy in adult life. But that doesn’t mean that you should always tell children the whole truth. If you were a Jewish mother in Nazi Germany, and your husband had gone into hiding, would you tell your small child who asks “where is Daddy?” his true whereabouts? I think not.

Cassanders said...

To address your main point, I do not agree with anticant. I do think it could be justified to avoid challenging such questions for children (definitely as long as it not "your own" children). Hopefully, the children will be given opportunities to question and challenge their beliefts through adolescence.

Albeit sligthly besides your point : Your collegue is to my knowledge completly wrong in her sweet delusions. I would think he/she is at par with a deluded mainstream chritianity, where the popular(sic) belief is that the diseased dear ones are "in heaven" or "with Jesus" or whatever expression they prefer. This is to my knowledge un-biblical. With the noteable exceptions of Ezekiel, probably Abraham, the robber on Golgata, and possibly a handful of other "prominents", all dead persons are in the "kingdom of death" (Probably inspired by the greek "Hades"), waiting for the judgement day.

Following the judgement, they will be shipped to Hell (derived from Gehenna) or heaven.

Cassanders
In Cod we trust

John said...

Cassanders, I'm not sure quite how you are responding to anticant, so I apologise if I have confused your meaning.

I do think it could be justified to avoid challenging such questions for children (definitely as long as it not "your own" children).

The question as posed was, what do you do if asked a direct question whose truthful answer may bring some harm to the recipient. Like Stephen I have mixed feelings, but I think I would answer truthfully that I believe differently.

Hopefully, the children will be given opportunities to question and challenge their beliefts through adolescence.

Scant hope. Seriously, how would a child who has never been exposed to dissenting viewpoints acquire the motivation to question and challenge orthodoxy?

Your collegue is to my knowledge completly wrong in her sweet delusions.

What, I am sure, you mean is that you don't hold that particluar belief. Strange how many different interpretations there are of the scriptural canon.

Hugo Hadlow said...

Here's another one:
Should you tell someone (whether a child or adult) that, according to their christian beliefs, one of their loved ones is now in hell due to lack of belief?

Mike N said...

I think the primary question of the post has a simple answer, at least as far as I am concerned.

But then I'm not an atheist of the militant school ;)

I would explain to the child that a lot of people do believe that you go to heaven when you die. A lot of other people believe completely different things. I don't believe any of it because there is absolutely no evidence.

There is no need to do this in an upsetting manner and I think that kids are pretty resilient - it's most likely the parents that I would upset ;)

Now, the issue of Father Christmas is much trickier. Do I out and out lie to my sons when they are old enough to ask or do I accept that because they can ank the question that I should tell the truth?

Cheers

Mike

John said...

Mike,

Now, the issue of Father Christmas is much trickier. Do I out and out lie to my sons when they are old enough to ask or do I accept that because they can ank the question that I should tell the truth?

Seems to me you have answered your own question - or rather the child will provide you with a course of action depending upon how they phrase their question.

I have a clear memory of being chastised by a teacher in my first year of school (aged 5) for telling my friend that Santa Claus did not exist - I was even made to go and recant. In retrospect, my friend did not solicit my opinion, but it is a strange sort of morality that opines it is good to coerce a child to knowingly tell a lie, not to prevent harm, but to perpetuate a fantasy that everyone eventually harmlessly outgrows.

Anonymous said...

Stephen,

Ridiculous though it may seem, some adults do believe in fairies and a whole host of other supernatual/fantasy beings. I would like to ask you and indeed the other contributors on this site for a little advice here. I know someone, someone close to me who seems to believe in the gobsmackingly bizarre nonsense of Doreen Virtue or Dr. Doreen Virtue Phd as she styles herself. Snake-oil saleswoman extrodinare. Angel therapy is her particluar bent.

The books she writes are such complete rubbish that it is very hard to believe that anyone could be drawn into it. Still, I have no idea how to proceed. I am reasonably sure this person is using this fantasy rubbish to make important life decisions.

Any and all suggestions welcome.

Hugo Hadlow said...

Anonymous,
I have a similar friend. My aunt (a doctor) says that you should definitely not humour them, but firmly disagree when they make crazy claims.
I know this is hard. There's a great section in Dennett's "Breaking the Spell", page 304, about how difficult it is to disabuse people of supernatural beliefs, and how they sometimes get quite defensive/aggressive.

Stephen Law said...

Anonymous - See my next post...

anticant said...

Religious people don't like children to lose faith in Santa Claus, because if they do they will probably rumble Jesus as well.

Brent Rasmussen said...

Good post, Stephen. I really enjoyed it.

I personally don't see anything wrong with allowing your children to understand that fictional characters are, well, fictional. Does it decrease their delighted enjoyment one whit less to realize that Harry Potter isn't a real person?

I don't think so.

I wrote about this back in 2003, if anyone is interested.

Domestically Challenged said...

I think that if the child in question is not yours, and they are under an age where reason becomes more fluent (let's say mid teens), then really you should not contradict (or rather, challenge) the religious philosophies their parents are teaching them. It isn't your call to make. It isn't your right.

I know I would be furious with any adult who tried to push their Christian views onto my children. I can only imagine the distress a child would have over being told they are going to an evil place of torture for not believing in a certain God. I offer the same respect in return.

You just don't do that to a child of 7yo. Instead, you allow them to believe what their parents think is best for them (as that is their right) until they are old enough to actually understand differences in philosophical paradigms. And then you may be blunt.

I personally would feel very content knowing a 7yo has visions of her daddy in a happy place surrounded by angels and love. I much prefer that for their young mind than to have to feel the pain of the alternative which they are too young to actually understand.

If I were faced with the question, and did not want to lie, I would simply say I don't know and ask the child to tell me all about this place. Because psychologically that is healing for them where as my stating I don't believe in this happy place, would not help to further their healing in any way.

And that is what you would want for a child of 7 who just lost her father, isn't it? To help them grieve through what will possibly (hopefully) be the most traumatic event of their lives? It is soooo not the time to offer challenges.

larryniven said...

domestically challenged:

I'm interested in your argument that I don't have the right to present my agnostic views to a religious person's child because of the harm it would do to the parent. How far would you take this line? Should I refrain from presenting evolution to a creationist's child? What about egalitarian views to a racist's child? Is religion a special case of an untouchable subject, or can you generalize it into a category (if so, would atheism also be in this category)? Is it possible for your answers to these questions to change over time, given different circumstances? I ask because I suspect very much that this is a purely emotionally driven argument on your part - no offense - and I would like to be able either to confirm or deny that suspicion.

Domestically Challenged said...

Larryniven:

It wouldn't harm the parent. It would harm the child in this specific situation (7 yo, recent death of her father). I'm sure you don't really need to have read all the latest journal articles on pediatric grieving to understand that this is not the appropriate time to push your agnostic platform. Not while they are grieving!

The only priority at that time should be to get the child through this trauma with as little permanent psychological scarring as possible.

If you want to push your beliefs onto other people's children, at least have the decency to choose the kid with two living parents. If he's 7yo (as was the child in question) he still won't be able to understand your argument but he will at least not risk any psychological scarring from the food for thought you offer.

My argument stands on statistical data accepted by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Not specifically about introducing Atheism to children but certainly in terms of pediatric grieving processes. If you truly feel the need to play the "emotional card" against me because of this, then I would be proud to bear that slap. I would feel no honor if I simply bulldozed a child to preserve my right to exercise freedom of expression. I'm willing to sacrifice that in lieu of their right to preserve their own well being. Have you seen the stats on teenaged girls and high risk behaviors in relation to having gone through the death of a parent? If not, then I suggest you look them up, they speak volumes.

If she weren't grieving I wouldn't have chosen the extreme term of "you have no right". I would have supported your freedom in that case, despite disagreeing with your method. It's all about the grieving element.

Personally, I do view children in general as a sort of understood no touch zone. In my opinion, they should not be exploited as pawns in furthering either side of the religious argument when their brains have not developed enough for them to critically examine and understand either argument. But, that is jmo.

Hugo Hadlow said...

"I'm sure you don't really need to have read all the latest journal articles on pediatric grieving to understand that this is not the appropriate time to push your agnostic platform."

Actually, I do. Is there any data on this? I'm skeptical that religion does offer much consolation to young children. Young children might believe in a vague way, but beliefs don't become concrete or rejected until adolescence. So I doubt young children think much about religious beliefs when a parent dies. But that's just what I expect. Do we have any data?

"My argument stands on statistical data accepted by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry"
You don't say what that data actually says. What does it say? Could you give us some titles/links?


I'm not sure about this question. I'm inclined to take a utilitarian line and wonder whether in the long run the person would be better off. But in the short run I'm not convinced I wouldn't feel better thinking that my parent was just dead and gone, rather than in heaven (it's certainly not the time to mention that they may be in hell).
Also, should one tell a religious kid that his dead father thought religion was ridiculous, and so if Christianity is true is actually in hell, not heaven? I did. Not sure if it was the right thing.
I think the vast majority of people aren't really capable of believing christianity. They might say they are, but then why does no one ever say to someone with a terminal disease, "Good for you! You'll be in heaven sooner than I!"? Cue fudging about "life is sacred" or somesuch.


Dennett, Breaking the Spell, page 324:
"In his deeply thoughtful essay, 'What Shall We Tell the Children?', Humphrey pioneers the consideration of the ethical issues involved in deciding how to decide 'when and whether the teaching of a belief system to children is morally defensible'"
http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/humphrey/amnesty.html
Humphrey references a couple of law papers by James G. Dwyer on whether parents have rights over their children, which are also very interesting if you can put up with the law style.
Whether and what rights parents have over their children would be an interesting topic for discussion. I don't know what to think.

larryniven said...

"It wouldn't harm the parent."

"It isn't your call to make [to present a worldview to a child]. It isn't your right [it's the parents' right].

I know I would be furious with any adult who tried to push their Christian views onto my children."

So, then, your fury isn't relevant to your stance at all? It's just a bonus of sorts? And the rights of parents don't matter? They're just bonuses? It seems that if you infringe on someone's rights, you're harming them.

"It would harm the child in this specific situation [reference, etc.]"

Okay, I fully agree that impugning a child's dead parent is very likely to harm that child - if only in the short term - but you can answer both from a religious and an atheistic position without saying anything bad. There's always a way to put a positive spin on it - unless your statistics show that you have to humor the child in every detail in order to avoid harm?

"Personally, I do view children in general as a sort of understood no touch zone. In my opinion, they should not be exploited as pawns in furthering either side of the religious argument when their brains have not developed enough for them to critically examine and understand either argument."

Okay, sure, but again, isn't there some way of answering without "furthering either side of the religious argument"? Again, I have to ask, if it would harm a child to argue evolution in the face of creationism, should you teach evolution even at an age when its brain hasn't developed enough for it to engage in a critical analysis of the argument? What about if it would hurt that child to argue in favor of gravity?

My point is, if the kid asks, you have the right to answer according to your beliefs, although perhaps also in as minimal a way as possible - in other words, you have the right to answer in a way that tries to minimize harm. You don't seem to agree, though, which I think is too extreme a position to take.

Domestically Challenged said...

" So, then, your fury isn't relevant to your stance at all? It's just a bonus of sorts? And the rights of parents don't matter? They're just bonuses? It seems that if you infringe on someone's rights, you're harming them."

No, my "fury" is not relevant to my argument. That was (as you stated in your prior post) my speaking from emotion.

"Okay, I fully agree that impugning a child's dead parent is very likely to harm that child - if only in the short term - but you can answer both from a religious and an atheistic position without saying anything bad. There's always a way to put a positive spin on it - ... (completely condescending remark)"

I will accept that perhaps there is and if so I would see no harm in it.

"…..Again, I have to ask, if it would harm a child to argue evolution in the face of creationism, should you teach evolution even at an age when its brain hasn't developed enough for it to engage in a critical analysis of the argument? What about if it would hurt that child to argue in favor of gravity?"

I really don't see the correlation btwn your abv questions and my stance on child grieving. Nor do I understand your apparent need to be condescending. I am speaking of a very specific circumstance dealing with abstract principals and you are speaking in general terms dealing with tangible evidence. Of course children can understand science at a very young age, evolution in it's simplest form is taught in classrooms as early as kindergarten if you count their lessons with butterflies in life science.

"My point is, if the kid asks, you have the right to answer according to your beliefs, although perhaps also in as minimal a way as possible - in other words, you have the right to answer in a way that tries to minimize harm. You don't seem to agree, though, which I think is too extreme a position to take."

No, actually I do agree as long as the focus is to minimize harm. I think that would be the ideal for both parties. My only question is who gets the honor of deciding what is and is not harmful for said child?

larryniven said...

"I really don't see the correlation btwn your abv questions and my stance on child grieving. Nor do I understand your apparent need to be condescending. I am speaking of a very specific circumstance dealing with abstract principals and you are speaking in general terms dealing with tangible evidence."

That's just the point, though: I'm trying to understand your "abstract principals." It seems like you mean to say, "If a parent teaches a child something, and teaching the child otherwise would cause (significant?) harm, nobody has the right to teach that child otherwise." So, in the initial example, the parentally-taught worldview is Christianity and life after death, and the opposing view is atheism and no life after death. You could equally have the parentally-taught worldview be creationism or racism or anti-Semitism or whatever, though, which is why I think this is a bit extreme as an *abstract* principal. And I apologize if I come off as condescending - the reason I phrase things as questions is because I don't know the answers, not because I'm assuming an answer on your behalf.

"Of course children can understand science at a very young age, evolution in it's simplest form is taught in classrooms as early as kindergarten if you count their lessons with butterflies in life science."

Actually, there's a very specific reason that I mentioned evolution. This is an argument that creationists make about the whole teaching-creationism-side-by-side thing: that children *can't* understand the argument at an early age. I've had this argument made to me with literally the exact same not-fully-developed-brain argument that you used just a few comments ago.

"My only question is who gets the honor of deciding what is and is not harmful for said child?"

Ideally, reality. It's good that you have studies to cite - although it's not good that you don't cite them in detail and you get defensive - because that puts you in a very strong position to make informed decisions. We now come back, of course, to the issue of what happens when a parent blatantly ignores empirical evidence - does that parent then forfeit their right (if, indeed, they ever had such a right) to indoctrinate their child?

Domestically Challenged said...

larryniven, not sure if you are still checking this post. I've been offline for several days or I would have responded sooner.

".... It's good that you have studies to cite - although it's not good that you don't cite them in detail and you get defensive - because that puts you in a very strong position to make informed decisions.... "

Apologies for that faux-pas. I'm new to blogging and have not seen any studies actually cited in blogs (or comments) I've browsed. For future reference, do I use standard APA or MLA format and should I only cite works available for online viewing? What about online journal articles only viewable by persons with a subscription….?

"Actually, there's a very specific reason that I mentioned evolution. This is an argument that creationists make about the whole teaching-creationism-side-by-side thing: that children *can't* understand the argument at an early age. I've had this argument made to me with literally the exact same not-fully-developed-brain argument that you used just a few comments ago."

Creationists use this argument??? That seems so absurd to me! Science is easy to understand and break down to almost any developmental level. Religion is not. Science is universal, religion is completely relative to individual (or institutional) interpretation. If we are speaking about religion taught in public schools (I'm assuming we are) it should be taught as a cultural mythology, not alongside science, it has no place there. I still can't believe Creationists would try to use the brain development argument!

" ...We now come back, of course, to the issue of what happens when a parent blatantly ignores empirical evidence - does that parent then forfeit their right (if, indeed, they ever had such a right) to indoctrinate their child?"

Ah yes. The Million dollar question! And really it must be opened up to include all aspects of parental choices. It should also include the parents who ignore evidence about feeding choices, TV viewing, At Home Parenting, sleep choices… etc. All the things which keep parenting message boards a war zone for new moms. "We have statistical data proving xyz is best" Vs "Screw your data, it's my kid I can do what I want and what I feel is best for my family!"

I have no answer, but would love to know how one would even go about finding that answer.

"Ideally, reality"

=o) Reality as defined by whom? I think it is too subjective. In my reality the Earth is roughly 4.54 billion yrs old. In the reality of my Christian friend it is around 6,000yrs old, we did live with dinosaurs and carbon dating is incorrect because The Flood compressed everything so much that the water pressure made it appear to be much older than it really is. This was taught at her religious college, by PhD's and is supported by her Bible. She believes it just as much as I believe in my reality. She would believe I was lying to and harming her child if I ever told him there was no God or an afterlife, just as vehemently as I would believe I was telling him real "Truth".

I don't mean to be coy, I just see it as an Allegory of the Cave type of thing. Shadows are a reality just as much as full bright day. Why does my reality get to win out so easily?

tom said...

How do we know that there is not any problem with children being lied to about Santa? It is the first big lie we are told. Not just told but taught to believe, everyone is in on it. Its is not a simple lie about fairies under the porch but and elaborate lie that continues for years. It’s a lie that is still forced upon us even as we are reaching an age where our doubts are stronger. We are even coerced by our parents and other adults to perpetuate this lie to siblings and older adults (grandparents) who for some reason find it cute an amusing too see our bewilderment trying to figure out how this guy does it. I knew it was a lie but was trained to believe the lie. Teaching kids to decipher lies is the best thing we can do for them.

Seer Travis Truman said...

I have to say that all human societies are based not only on lies, but lying to children and child abuse.

Lying to a child damages their ability to recognize Truth. It is a form of child abuse in itself and is NEVER harmless.

The idea of trying to downtread by terrorizing and threatening children into obeying the invalid dictates of society and parents is simply a malevolent and insane thing to do. It's child abuse.

Lets take a look at what would happen in a sane society : I would have just calmly and simply explained that her dad had died, and that her mother as in denial because she was too mentally feeble to face this reality. Then, child protection services would be called, and monitor the situation carefully, and possibly remove the child.

Santa? Threats to obey invalid and insane societal behaviour dictates via simple threats? All child abuse and bad childcare.

This is more of a psychological question than a philosophical one, however.

S said...

The argument that "Its ok to do something because it trains children to handle it" is utterly malevolent and deranged.

Take torture. Would you say "Oh, torture is good because it teaches children how to deal with being co-erced and tortured"? I hope not.

Lying to children is actually a form of using them as a poison container, as explained on My website.

You cannot justify an insane lie such as santa or god by suggesting it helps them to detect such lies.

Also, this is patently unTrue. Children who are systematically lied grow up distrustful, often unable to recognize Truth, and even paranoid. There is no basis for this argument.