When should we lie to our kids?

Whether it's sneaking vegetables into their food, telling them Santa Claus exists, or assuring them the dog went to live on a farm, lying to kids comes naturally. But is it right?

Father and daughter during easter time

Lying to children is an unavoidable part of parenthood. As a child gets to that age when they begin to ask questions and look to you for information about the world, there’s just no way you can, in good conscience, expose them to the truth in all its unvarnished brutality.

Sometimes this is phrased as “let kids be kids”: I prefer to see it as a mixture of “let kids be free of existential angst” and “let kids not have too much information with which to construct filthy jokes”.

Lies to children are almost always for their own good, which is to say, that’s the reason they’re told.

We tell our kids their dog went to live on a farm to spare them pain. We don’t tell them we’ve secretly mixed vegetables into their dinner so they’ll eat healthy when we know they’re not going to do so voluntarily.

Our lies are motivated by the best of intentions, but so are anti-vaxxers, and nobody ever talks about “little white disease exposures”.

What I’m getting at is that every parent is confronted with an ethical dilemma: is it right to lie to kids?

The lie that caused the uncomfortable itching at the back of my conscience as my kids grew from toddlers to proper speaking-role humans was Santa Claus.

This one is rarely questioned: most people accept that you’re supposed to tell your kids that Santa exists, and you’re supposed to keep the pretence up until either they figure it out for themselves, or they start university.

Well it never really sat right with me, and as my first child entered school, the ethics of Santa began to gnaw at me.

This was no doubt informed by my own experience: when I found out Santa was a lie it was after I had spent considerable time and effort vehemently defending his existence to my school friends, in the face of their amused denialism.

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I was 10 years old, and let me tell you friends: that is too old. You’d have to be an idiot to still believe in Santa at 10, and my friends must’ve thought that’s exactly what I was while I was angrily crying, “How could my parents AFFORD all those presents then?”

And look, I am not here to argue with that perception: I was an idiot, and I mostly still am. But it’s a parent’s job, if their child is an idiot, to protect them from the social consequences of that becoming widely known, and my parents signally failed in that duty.

I actually found out that my parents had waited so long to tell me Santa wasn’t real because they’d just assumed I already knew, and that really hit home to me how dangerous lying to kids can be: because if you don’t take the time to correct the lie later on, you’re setting the kid up for a hell of a time later on.

And when you DO take the time, you’re setting them up for a lifetime of mistrust. When the people they trust most in the world sit them down to tell them they’ve been lying to them since birth, what are they to think?

The longer you lie, the worse it’s going to feel for the kid when you reveal it, which is why we bit the bullet and told our son about Santa when he was seven. His sisters were just three, and we told them at the same time, because we had decided enough was enough: time for a new age of honesty. Well … almost.

The thing about Santa Claus is that it’s a lie that is almost universally respected, but also one which achieves no real purpose.

Kids who don’t believe in Santa don’t suffer, they still love Christmas and they still enjoy receiving free stuff. I promise you that not believing in Santa doesn’t stop them “being kids”.

“When the people they trust most in the world sit them down to tell them they’ve been lying to them since birth, what are they to think?”

But there are other lies that aren’t so clear-cut. Lies that you might want to avoid for the sake of being honest with your children, but that you know will prevent real negative consequences. The truth really can hurt sometimes.

“Yes, everything’s fine”. “No, Mummy and Daddy weren’t fighting”. “Your drawing looks beautiful”. There is no doubt whatsoever that some lies keep children happy where the truth would crush them.

And while it might be important for your child to trust you, there are few tasks of parenthood more important than maximising happiness.

The world will provide enough sadness for them to be getting on with: no need for you to add to it, right?

Then there are the lies told when the issue is not so much happiness as complexity.

When a three-year-old asks where babies come from, it won’t necessarily make them sad to find out the whole truth, but by at least glossing over the details you can avoid burdening them with knowledge that their young brains might find disturbing.

There’s no pressing need for a child in single digits to know about foreplay or lubrication, and you never know what might trigger nightmares.

But this doesn’t mean that “lie to your kids” is advice that should be swallowed wholesale.

When you lie to your kids, it’s likely that one day they’ll find out you did, and when that day comes, they’ll ask themselves why.

They’ll surely know you told them babies are a direct result of two people in love kissing each other because you didn’t want to overload them with grossness.

They’ll surely know you told them their drawing was perfect because you wanted them to be happy and confident.

But what will they assume about why you told them a magic man broke into your house every Christmas? Will they think it was because you wanted them to enjoy the magic of Christmas, or will they think you just went along with convention from convenience?

Why will they think you told them Stevie the retriever was still alive?

Were you sparing their feelings, or will they think you were just dodging a difficult but necessary conversation because it made you uncomfortable? Will they give you the benefit of the doubt?

In the end, the answer to the question, “is lying to your kids right?” isn’t yes or no: it’s “just ask yourself why?”

If you’re genuinely telling this lie to make your child’s life easier, you can probably breathe easy. If you’re telling a lie just to make your own life easier, maybe you need to work a bit harder.

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