As a parent of young children, I have recently come to know that lots of people find it acceptable to lie ("not telling the absolute truth") to children about all kinds of subjects. It is not only that they don't tell them there is no Santa Claus, they actually tell them that Santa Claus exists when children believe it's only a story, and they tell them that it is Santa Claus who gives them presents in Christmas. People tell 5 year old children that "if Mom and Dad really want it, a baby will appear inside Mom's belly". I once heard a Kindergarten "teacher" (can't find the right English word) telling a 3 year old that the broken tail of a plastic cow would grow again. I wonder if all this lying is acceptable? Perhaps there are some empirical, non philosophical issues here (how do children react to coming to know the truth about these things, and to coming to know that adults lied to them?; will this predispose children to lie when they grow?), but even if there are no bad distant consequences to this kind of behaviour, it still seems to me as basically wrong.

This is a great question, and it's one I think that parents -- and philosophers -- should think more about. I personally have grappled with it many times as a parent. It hit home for me when I was trying to figure out how to deal with my son's nightmares. The standard advice that turned up on web searches was to buy some kind of air freshening spray and tell your child that it was 'Bad Dream Spray' -- that we could spray it each night before bed and it would keep the nightmares away. In other words, the standard advice involved outright lying to kids. And this bugged me. And then I started thinking about all the other ways that we standardly lie to kids -- some of which you detail in your question. In general we think that lying is wrong. So why do we treat lying to kids differently, especially as we're simultaneously trying to teach them the value of honesty?

One account for why we might think it's OK to lie to children comes from philosopher Sissela Bok, who notes that the special needs of children help explain why we think differently about lying to them in comparison with others: "They, more than all others, need care, support, protection. To shield them, not only from brutal speech and frightening news, but from apprehension and pain -- to soften and embellish and disguise -- is as natural as to shelter them from harsh weather. Because they are more vulnerable and more impressionable than adults, they cannot always cope with what they hear. Their efforts, however rudimentary, need encouragement and concern, rather than 'objective' evaluation. Unvarnished facts, thoughtlessly or maliciously conveyed, can hurt them, even warp them, render them callous in self-defense."

But while I think there is some plausibility in this line of argument, much of parental lying would not fall under this category. Many parental lies are merely whimsical or expedient -- they don't seem to be designed to help or encourage children in any meaningful way.

Hugo Grotius, a 17th century Dutch jurist, offered a different explanation for we're perfectly justified in lying to children; in his view, "it is permissible to say what is false before infants and insane persons." When we lie to competent adults, we infringe on what Grotius calls their "liberty of judgment," but since young children lack this liberty, we do nothing wrong if we lie to them. To generalize this point, one might think that lying to children can be justified because we think they have no right to the truth.

Personally I feel squeamish when I encounter this line of reasoning. But there might be an argument in the vicinity that can help us make sense of this issue. Contemporary philosopher David Simpson argues that lying is immoral because "it draws on and abuses the core of interaction and community" -- "When I lie to you I do not just treat you as an object to be deceived, regarding you as an obstacle or a means to an end. When I lie to you I engage, at the core of the lie, the mutuality of our personhood. I do not just dismiss you as a person; I appeal to you as a person, and then use that against you." It might be plausible to think that children, especially very young children, are not yet fully persons in some sense; they have not yet exercised the full potential of their rationality. Even when we're being entirely honest with them, parental conversations with children can never be the mutual engagements of personhood that take place in conversations between adults. Thus, we can't violate this mutuality by lying to them. Without going so far as Grotius -- without saying that children have no right to the truth -- it seems plausible to think that the fact that children have not yet fully developed their rational natures means that we have different obligations of truthfulness towards them.

This doesn't mean that parental lying should be dismissed as non-problematic. As philosopher Jeffrey Blustein has argued, our most important duty as parents is to provide children "with the kind of affectionate, appreciative, and supportive upbringing that gives them a sense of their own value and a confidence in their ability to fulfill their intentions." In certain circumstances, it might be that we can best fulfill this duty by lying -- and the fact that our children have not yet fully grown into themselves as persons might excuse us when we do so. But once we stop to think about it, it's easy to see that those circumstances are far, far fewer than we'd like to admit.

(By the way, pardon the plug, but if you're interested in reading more on this, I've developed these points in more detail in "Creative Mothering: Lies and the Lying Mothers Who Tell Them," in Motherhood: The Birth of Wisdom, edited by Sheila Lintott.)

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