Your Lying Eyes

05.13.08 | Comment?

Should we lie to our children?

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Paul Graham wrote an excellent and thought provoking piece on lying to children. I guess it’s obvious and sometimes I’m guilty of it myself (though my spouse often observes that I provide the accurate answer to 5-year-old questions too often…) The truth is, parents lie to children all the time for various reasons some of which are justified and some of which are not.

The interesting thing to me is the reaction to those lies as children realize that their world isn’t as it’s being represented by the authority figures in their life and the often crushing emotional consequences of these realizations. The more precocious the child, the earlier this set of contradictions will likely be exposed and the less prepared emotionally the child will likely be to handle the revelation.

Does that mean you shouldn’t lie to your children? I don’t think any reasonable, caring parent can escape some degree of deflecting “truth” situationally because often the subject is not age appropriate and the child is not yet capable of understanding the reality of the situation. However, I’ve come to understand that children are significantly more aware and capable of understanding complex and nuanced situations than adults realize.

I’ve adopted a rule of disclosure that is as starkly factual as possible when confronted with questions. I find that my daughter often likes to use car rides to ask questions that have been on her mind. Recently, she had a play date with a child from a vegetarian family at our house and that child asked “Do you eat animals?” Let’s just say my daughter is an omnivore so she answers “Yes” her friend says “Don’t you think that’s sad?” The questions that spawned from this exchange was “Why do we eat some animals and not others? And, are the animals we eat happy?”

We’ve been pretty open with her about where food comes from, we jokingly call eggs “chicken embryos” and bacon “sliced pig” so there’s no mystery about food source. I turned the question around and asked “Why do you think we eat some animals and not others?” and she said “Because some taste better than others.” I thought that was a pretty good answer. Then I asked her, “Do you think these animals are happy?” and she said “I’m not sure if animals are happy or sad, but they probably don’t want to be eaten.”

An interesting exchange to be sure, I learned more about her and came to understand that she has a deeper understanding of the situation than I would have guessed on my own. We’ve since watched a couple of videos on food processing (Modern Marvels: The Butcher and Cold Cuts) and that helped answer some of the more specific questions about the subject.

The point to this story isn’t about the specific conversation, it’s about the discovery than happens as you explore potentially uncomfortable subjects with children in an open and honest way. We didn’t get into the living conditions of animals, diseases, and many other related topics, but we did get to a place where she understood the core and, hopefully, if she ever reflects on the conversation and follow-up she’ll realize she got the best answers possible.

In any case, I encourage you to read Graham’s piece and carefully and consciously consider when, if, and how you should lie to your children. Sometimes, even though it’s the easiest course, it may not yield the desired long-term results.

What’s your take? Where do you stand on lying to your children. Comments welcome (they are moderated for spam, but not for content.)

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