Tough Questions: Will You Lie To Your Kids?


Note: I wrote about this before, but it has been heavily rewritten as I have thought about it further

The easy answer is no. While I do not have children at the moment, it is a distinct possibility in the future, and I have always thought that I want to be completely honest with my kids, if I ever have any.

I don’t think that this is a tough question when it comes to teenagers. I remember how my mother never told me anything about herself and her teenage years, and this created distance and mistrust between us. However, when it comes to small children, there are two lies that I was told as a child which I find myself wanting to perpetuate: Santa, and heaven.

This sounds like a terrible idea for a freethinking, atheist potential parent to consider. I remember when I found out that Santa was not real the hurt did not come from finding out that the magic I believed in wasn’t there. I felt fooled, I felt stupid, I felt like adults had laughingly played this elaborate prank on me and I fell for it and it make me sick to think about it. A friend of mine told me that when her little brother found out there was no Santa, he looked his mother dead in the eye and said “you know, I never really believed in Santa. The only reason I believed is because you told me he was real, and you told me that you would never lie to me”. The idea that I would ever fray my child’s trust like that terrifies me.

But then I remember how much fun believing in Santa was. I remember the anticipation of going down the stairs on Christmas morning and finding presents that had magically appeared under the tree. I remember being older and fully aware that there was no Santa, but asking my mother to hide the presents and act like I still did, just to recreate a fraction of that thrill. As I am older I look back on that time and, remembering how much fun believing in magic was, even for a short time, I feel a little sick about robbing that experience from my kids.

I also vividly remember trying to cope with my Grandfather’s death when I was six, and peppering my mother with questions about heaven and what happened when you die. I remember the pit of emptiness in my stomach trying to fathom such a loss. It was enormous, it was overwhelming, trying to grasp the concept that people could just not be there anymore. When she told me that he was happy, he was somewhere else but that we would see him again, and he could see us, and that he listened if we prayed to him, it was the only thing that got me through that day. I don’t know how I would have coped with it if heaven had not been there to soften the blow.

This leaves me incredibly conflicted. I feel like a hypocrite for considering using these lies, but at the same time I can’t find it in me to reject them completely at this time.

I would love to hear from some atheist parents out there who have grappled with these decisions.

Comments

  1. schini says

    Though fairly standard catholic, my parents never lied to us about where x-mas presents come from (from them, aunts and uncles, etc.), because they did not want us to think, Santa would love us less than the kids who got more or more expensive presents, or more than the kids who got less.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      That’s an interesting perspective. When I was growing up, comparing what you got for x-mas with other kids never came up. It was just cool to get any presents at all, there was no concept of how much a present cost or what it was worth from the ages of 3 to 7. The simple unwrapping of them was already 70% of the thrill. It’s worth was based on how badly you wanted it, or how fun it was to play with, even a small wooden yo-yo would fit that criteria nicely. Perhaps times are changing, and this is something that might come up.

  2. disenchanted says

    Remember too that you most likely won’t be the only decision maker. My wife does the Santa thing. I don’t lie to my kids about it. When asked, I answer, “talk to your mother about it.” It’s created a situation where my kids know, but don’t want to be told… Also, even if you won’t lie to them about Santa, there will be a million lies you do tell them… “You can’t stay home from school today” when they possibly could have was my most recent. Truth in parenting is a slippery slope.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    I don’t know how I’m going to handle this. No kids yet, but planning… I’m thinking I’ll wait until they ask, then frame it as a story, and always frame it as a story. (This goes for Santa, the tooth fairy, gods, monsters, the lot).

    But lying to kids for your own entertainment is fun, although so far my experience in this direction is limited (obviously) to other people’s kids.

  4. Loud - warm smiles do not make you welcome here says

    For us, the magic of the Santa myth outweighed the desire for no lies, but in retrospect I would have been equally comfortable with not perpetuating it.

    When my dad died a few years ago, my daughter was only seven and very close to her granddad, and we chose to tell her exactly what that meant (i.e. no heaven), concentrating on celebrating his life through our memories and stories to get her through it. It was a tough time for her, and hit her quite hard, but I believe she has come out of it a much stronger person for it, and we have no regrets!

  5. Devocate says

    The magic of presents does not require a santa. It would have been there regardless of what you believed. Definitely not worth betraying the trust of your kids, which you will never regain throughout the rest of their lives.

    The lie of heaven is, of course, just evil.

  6. Steve Cameron says

    Maybe the most important thing to be honest with your children about is that you won’t always be honest with them. I don’t have kids myself, but my sister does and has more or less taken this approach. She (and her partner) are frank with their son that there are some questions they won’t answer, and that some answers and explanations they give might not be correct for various reasons that will be easier to understand when he’s older.

    This has the benefit of adding to the mystique of growing up, which is perhaps the biggest lie or disappointment children face.

  7. sharkjack says

    Where we live, sinterklaas rather than santa clause is the thing kids believe in, and he very physically appears (there’s official parades and news about him and his black pete helpers (a whole other can of worms that I hope we really should have dealt with by now). I don’t remember asking my parents about Sinterklaas until I stopped believing, because the whole thing is just so down to earth. If I have kids will I play along? Probably. But if my kid honestly asked, I’d never lie to them. There’s a difference between being tricked an being lied to.

    When it comes to heaven, I don’t know if I ever believed in heaven, but I know I didn’t believe when my grandfather died. Death without heaven doesn’t become harder to bear, in some ways it might even be easier, because it doesn’t complicate the question of grief. It is okay to be incredibly sad, because a person we cared about is gone forever now.

    I will never lie about heaven to my or any relative of mine whose kid would ask me about what happens after death.
    Is that always going to be the best solution? I don’t know. Maybe not. But I’ve seen the damage repressed grief can do, and it is not something I’m willing to risk.

    As for other, more mundane lies. I’d like to believe I’d raise my kids without them. That no matter what they’re owed an honest attempt at an answer for any true question. I don’t know if I’d be able to live up to that in practice. I feel like it should be possible, but as someone who is not a parent I don’t want to judge there.

  8. says

    We’ve always played make-believe about Santa, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. So while the kids totally know that it’s us, they also have great fun pretending we aren’t the ones giving them presents.

    Heaven? No. I told my kids about molecules and atoms and that everything gets to be everything else. They’re made from the same stuff as dinosaurs were made of and when we’re dead we get to be other things again. Occasionally they’ll say “hello grandpa” when eating a tomato….

  9. lanir says

    Don’t have kids myself but the way you wrote up the question got me thinking. I was never really disappointed about the Santa thing. My parents were authoritarians so there were ever so many ways they told me they couldn’t be trusted from a very young age. Or at least not blindly trusted to always have my interests at heart. So when the Santa thing came up it didn’t particularly damage my trust in my parents the way it seems to have some other people. Of course that’s because I had a worse relationship with them already than I would have if I’d been able to trust them and felt betrayed about the Santa thing though.

    Letting these things be stories as someone else mentioned sounds like a great way to go. I think it’s important to let your kids see that you can make mistakes at some point or not be entirely honest and I think stories have a way of implying that without the later drama.

    Probably best to take anything I say in this area with a grain of salt though.

  10. Dr Sarah says

    I never did come up with an answer to the Santa issue that I felt comfortable with. Tell my children Santa was real? I was lying to them and risked forever destroying their trust. Tell them Santa was a myth? How could I destroy their chances of holding one of the most magical beliefs of childhood! What kind of evil Scrooge was I to even think it??

    I went with the flow and… tried to avoid talking about it as much as possible, but, certainly, when the subject came up I did not tell them the truth. Actually, come to think of that, I did once – when my daughter was scared of Santa, when she was about four. I thought it might help her to know that it was just a story. What actually happened was that her lip started quivering and she said ‘But I *want* him to be real!’ And, interestingly, she obviously then forgot that interchange, because when she worked it out for herself last Christmas (age 8) she didn’t remember having heard me say that before. Make what you will of that.

    I did, however, tell them both the truth as soon as they thought to ask, and I never went to any lengths to perpetuate the myth – never told them presents were from Santa, never tried to create sooty footprints on the fireplaces or sounds of reindeer bells outside their window. And sure as heck never tried to tell them the ‘Father Christmas won’t get you presents if you’ve been naughty’ line. Which is just cruel for a child anyway. So, I didn’t try to put them right on the myth they were getting from the world around them, but at least I tried my best to avoid adding to it.

    When each of them did get to the stage of asking, what I explained was that Father Christmas had originally been a real person (St Nicholas) and that, after he died, parents went on giving presents to children in his name, and telling them stories about him which gradually got added to as time went on (magical reindeer, etc.). I thought that might be easier for them than being effectively told ‘Sorry, we’ve been lying to you all along.’ As it happened, my son took it in his stride, and my daughter… when I confirmed the suspicions she’d raised that it was a story and not the truth, she cheered ‘Yeah! Throw it out the window!’ and promptly made up a little ‘Throw it out the window!’ song and dance act which she thought was hilarious. So she obviously wasn’t traumatised by the whole thing. 🙂

    Anyway, as of daughter working it out last Christmas, they now both know. So at least I will never have to face that dilemma again, and have put it behind me with enormous relief.

    Sorry for the length of that. The thing about death has been a lot easier; when the subject has occasionally come up, I’ve just said that everyone believes different things about what happens after you die and that no-one really knows for sure, but that Daddy and I believe that when your body stops working that’s the end of you. (Although I made the error of trying to explain CPR at the same time, which confused the issue somewhat.)

  11. silverfeather says

    My husband and I disagreed about the Santa thing. I want to be as honest as possible with our daughter – even about that – and he hated the thought of depriving her of the magic of belief. We ended up compromising with the make believe idea. I get to tell her that Santa is a pretend man that grownups created to make Christmas even more fun, and then we both get to continue on with all the Santa traditions through the holiday season.
    Our daughter plays right along and really gets into it! And this way it is an experience that we all share, with no deception or possible feelings of betrayal down the line.
    _

    As for death, thank goodness that hasn’t come up yet, but when it does there is no way we will be telling her that heaven is real. There are other sources of comfort and connection to be had for non-believers in mourning, and it is okay and even healthy to feel grief and sadness and know that you are able to handle these emotions and your family will stand by you and be there for you while you feel them.

    Most parents have the deep desire to shield their child from pain (myself included) and there are plenty of good situations to give this desire free reign. But we have to remember that our primary job is to guide and prepare our children to go out into the world. Hopefully with a strong sense of self, and a strong sense of empathy. Trying to prevent a child from feeling the full range of emotions deprives them of what should be a safe time for them to learn how to deal with the scary and negative ones. And trying to prevent a child from feeling negative emotions by using manipulative lies is doing her no favors in my book.
    _

    Also, as someone said upthread, you will be surprised at how hard it is NOT to lie to your children sometimes, just in day to day life. When you are tired and you are just feeling “done”, it is so much easier to lie to shut down some boundary pushing behavior than it is to actually try to discuss it (I am speaking from experience with a very young child here – older may be easier). That said, I always feel better about the interaction afterward when I have put in the extra effort. Sometimes she even comes up with a compromise that changes my mind!
    _

    So, I guess what I’m saying here is that just because a path is easy doesn’t make it right – or even beneficial.

  12. jacobletoile says

    My wife and I play the Santa game with our children we tell them Santa is coming, we sign presents santa, that sort of thing. What we also do is ask questions. If we see ‘santa’ at the mall they get excited, and we get excited with them. Then I ask about the other Santa they saw on the drive over. I ask how Santa makes it to every house in one night. The idea is to teach the children to question. It is interesting how their belief expresses. Most of the year, if it comes up, they recognize the story for what it is. Around the holidays though they get caught up in it. I am comfortable with them enjoying a cultural myth, I am also proud of their ability to examine it. My oldest is 6 next week and my youngest is 2.5. Obviously their understanding is very different from each others.

  13. thoughtsofcrys says

    These are all interesting comments, especially since it seems that the Santa story is the one that many seem torn about, whereas everyone who mentioned it comes out as a strong “no” on the heaven myth. Do you think that’s because heaven comes from religion, and as such we have a stronger gut reaction to it, given how harmful we find religion to be?

    I do want to make one thing clear though: When I say “perpetuate” a lie, I mean perpetuate across the generation, as in bring it up at all. I am not at all torn on how I would react if my child looks me in the eye and asks really? Is it real? Once they question, once they ask directly, I have no intention on lying to them, about anything. I may have to simplify the answer based on what someone of their age can grasp, but no lies.

  14. silverfeather says

    thoughtsofcrys @13
    The difference to me is this: the santa belief is not expected to proceed into adulthood and last for the rest of someone’s life. It is not taught to children in lieu of valuable coping skills, nor is it regularly used as a carrot to continue to manipulate people throughout their lives as part of a whole array of beliefs that conflict with what we can demonstrate about reality. That makes it far less potentially harmful than heaven, imo.
    Though, I guess depending on your perspective santa may manipulate adults into more extreme consumerism, lol.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      I see what you mean in the normal context of the heaven myth. However, in this post, I find myself considering telling my very young children about heaven ONLY as a way of helping them cope with the immensity of the concept of death. I would have no intentions of letting this myth linger past the age of 10 or 11.

      • silverfeather says

        I apologize if I am misunderstanding you, so I want to clarify. In this sense, you are considering telling your young children about heaven as a way to simplify the concept of death for them and help prevent them from feeling so much pain at the loss of a loved one? But you would not let this idea persist for them past 10 or 11.
        My problem is that heaven as a concept, as it was taught to me as a young child by my family, means that nobody actually dies. Your loved one isn’t really gone, they’re just far away, watching over you, so no need to feel so sad. You’ll see them again one day.
        I don’t see how the denial of the reality of death even lays any groundwork to help them cope with that reality.
        In my family it had the added effect of quietly shaming a person who felt too sad for too long about a death – because that loved one was in a better place now and you should be happy for them. I am not suggesting that you would go this far, but the idea that it is a little selfish to mourn the loss of a loved one who is now in heaven is not uncommon.
        I understand why you would grapple with this – as I said before, we want to protect our children from pain. But shielding them from pain by giving them a pretty lie just isn’t helpful long term. They haven’t learned how to cope, they’ve learned how to avoid. And at 10 or 11, they’ve also leaned that their parents find death so terrifying that they had to lie to them about it. Even if they understand why you hid the truth from them (which is a gamble – some kids react very strongly to finding out that parents lied to them and there isn’t really a way to predict who will react how) they still have no foundation for how to actually handle the feelings of loss and grief that death brings in the future.
        Death is a tough concept. There are secular ideas about death that are both true and poetic that can be comforting in their own ways, while not denying reality. The idea that we are all made up of the stuff of the universe, and that when we die that stuff that was once us goes on to become new things. The idea that being dead feels just the same to us as we felt before we were born. Even the idea that our loved ones live on in our memories of them, and the stories we tell about them. That their lives touched us and mattered. That death makes what you do in life so much more precious, because we only get this one.
        The idea that it is okay grieve, and that even though the feelings are so big and scary the people that love you will be there for you, and you will survive it.

        • thoughtsofcrys says

          I think I have not explained myself very well, as it is difficult to escape ones own context.
          My mother is religious, but not in a traditional way, more of a new-agey kind of way. I was never given the classic Christian description of heaven, and so there was never an implied “stop feeling sad” element to grief. Grieving was fine, it was important, and I could take as long as I needed. I remember asking her if all of my grandfather’s possessions, his house and his favorite chair, also stopped existing with him. I was an only child and very attached to objects, and for some reason the idea that these possessions would keep going on without him was tragic to me. My mother told me that no, they didn’t disappear with him, but it was OK because when you die, you just don’t care about these things any more. All of the day-to-day things and problems and pleasures just don’t matter to those who have left us. I guess if you just keep it at that it’s more of a white lie than an outright one, but she took it one step further in telling me that he was also at peace, and that he could hear my prayers. I absolutely hated the “those we love live on inside us, in our memories” explanation, it felt like a cop-out, like a bullshit way of trying to make me feel less sad by equating a person with a memory. This is why the idea that I could work through my grief by talking to him every once in a while, thereby slowly getting used to the idea that he was gone, helped me a lot.
          I have no intention of fabricating a complicated heaven lie and then, at age 10, surprise! It was all bullshit! What I am grappling with is more of an implication that the dead are fine, they’ll be alright, and it’s OK to be sad, but you can still talk to them if you want to. They wont talk back, but it’s not too late to tell them what you would have wanted to say before they passed. This implication then morphs into a make-believe, they probably can’t hear you, you’ve figured that out by now since you have been raised without religion or superstition, but it helps us to say goodbye properly, and when you really miss someone talking to them or writing a letter to them does help us feel closure, even if deep down we know they can’t hear us.

          • silverfeather says

            Thanks for the clarification! It seems that you and I were taught fairly different versions of heaven, and this explains a lot more to me as to why you would be contemplating passing your version (or something like it) on, even temporarily.
            So, reading over some of your descriptions:

            – “when you die, you just don’t care about these things any more. All of the day-to-day things and problems and pleasures just don’t matter to those who have left us”

            – “the dead are fine, they’ll be alright, and it’s OK to be sad, but you can still talk to them if you want to”

            These parts to me seem perfectly compatible with secular mourning. They can actually fit right in with the idea that being dead is just like how it felt before you were born. (Talking or writing to someone who is gone can be very helpful even when know they aren’t there. In the end, you are doing this for your own closure). One of the things I was trying to get at in my last comment was that there are many different ways to look at death that don’t have to entail anything supernatural, and that different people find comfort in different perspectives. There are whole books written on the subject for non-believers! I personally have never found much comfort in the “thoughts and memories” idea either, but I know others who have.
            Anyway, once we get into the parts where loved ones can hear your prayers, or can hear you speak to them – that to me is the dividing line. Now they still exist. Just in a place where they won’t or can’t talk back to you. This part of the heaven myth was very damaging for me. It left me totally unprepared to cope with the grief of knowing that person was gone. Like, really gone.
            I also have some experience with the feelings of betrayal upon finding out my parents had lied to me about various things for what they considered to be my own good. I was one of those kids who didn’t handle that well and it did its part to break my trust in them. It was not the only thing. At least the heaven they taught me about wasn’t a lie they told me – they actually believed every word of that.
            You seem to have had a different experience – your family’s concept of heaven helped you and you are even grateful to your mother for telling you about it. If you don’t mind my asking… did your mother believe what she told you? Assuming she did, do you think you would feel differently about how she handled that with you if had later found out that she had lied to you (even knowing that she wanted to help)?
            I guess in the end I feel very strongly that honesty, especially about difficult, painful, and life changing things is critically important, even when it’s hard. With very young children it can be more difficult, but there are resources for this as well. I also think it is almost always (I’m sure there’s an exception, hehe) the ethically correct thing to do. Honesty is what I would have asked for from my parents if I had known how, and it is a major requirement for every authentic relationship I have.

            Thanks for this conversation, it is always interesting and informative for me to hear other perspectives and experiences about things like this!

  15. pensnest says

    I agree with the principle of never lying to your children, and I don’t think I’ve lied to mine. Sometimes the answer is greatly simplified (like when Daughter asked me how the baby got inside the mummy’s tummy—she was three), but it’s essentially true.

    But. Sometimes—rarely—you need to lie.

    When I was nine, my father lied to me, and I’ve always been grateful. My mother had gone out the previous evening to take the dog for a walk, and she hadn’t come home by my bedtime. Next morning, my father had to explain that she had been murdered. He did it very well. He assured us that it had been quick and painless and that she had ‘gone to Jesus’, which at the time was comforting. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I found out she had been raped and strangled—via my sister, my father never told us—and I am so glad not to have had those nightmares.

    I grant you, this is an exceptional case. And I wouldn’t, in general, say that it’s right to sanitise the truth. Most of the time it isn’t, and people are strong enough not to need it. It’s just, sometimes principles have to bend.

    • silverfeather says

      pensnest @15
      I am so sorry that happened to you! I personally would see that scenario as a simplified version of the truth. She WAS murdered, and there is no need, most especially with children, to go through the gory details of exactly how. That might be a periodically ongoing conversation, and more information could be given as they got older, as they asked, as they needed to talk about it.
      Ugh, I’m so sorry 🙁

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      I’m really sorry that happened to your family. It is of course an exceptional case, and witholding some information is not the same as lying, in many cases. Your father lost someone too that day, and I don’t think it would be fair for anyone to judge anyone going through that on how they explained what happened to their kids. I’m glad that the way he chose was a comfort to you.

  16. says

    On the magic of Santa: Millions of kids have great times while not believing in Santa. And also, make belief is fun, too and it shows how remarkably smart and aware kids are.
    My youngest just lost her first tooth, a long awaited event. Of course we put it under her shark* for the toothfairy to collect. Before going to bed she came to me and asked me to give her a toy rather than money because she figured out I’m the toothfairy.
    And then she went on to tell everybody and their dog that the toothfairy brought her a Frozen diary and a pretty hairband….

    *Pillows are boring

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