Afternoon InquisitionParenting

AI: Lying will Get You Murdered in Your Sleep

I am constantly amazed by the amount of parenting advice that involves outright lying to your kids. I don’t mean Santa/Toothfairy stuff… I mean, “Oh, if you want him to stop picking his nose, just tell him that a monster is going to maul his face off in his sleep.” Or “You can’t watch Elmo anymore because Elmo is dead. A pedophile killed him in his sleep.” Or “If you don’t stop playing with your weiner in the living room, it’s going to rot and fall off in your sleep.”

Usually I’m confused by “convenience lies”. They never really seem to be more effective at helping curb or stop behavior than telling the truth, and all you’ve done is chipped away at your credibility… and made your kid terrified to fall asleep. Certainly my parenting experience is limited, but I’ve found that “You can’t watch Elmo anymore because we sent it back to Netflix.” or even “because you’ve watched it enough this week” gets me the same response as a lie: tantrum over not getting to watch Elmo/not getting to pick his nose/not being allowed to play with his weiner with company in the room. But with the truth I don’t have to compromise my credibility and I get to flex my authority nuts. I also have a 2 year old who answers, “Okay!” and runs upstairs to brush his teeth when I ask him if he wants to go to bed. I pretty much win all around.

Yet there are probably times, when talking to children or adults, that lying really is easier. But better?

Do you ever lie because it’s easier or better? Is lying ever the easier or better option? Has lying ever worked in your favor in the long run?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.


Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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  1. An odd juxtaposition. I have worked very hard to be honest with my children. Sometimes I have had to tell them I don’t want to talk about something but that is normally when they ask questions about their mother that I can only answer in a way that will hurt them.

    Other people, people who don’t matter too me? Sure I will lie to them if the results will amuse me.

    Also, I have learned that no matter what my wife is wearing I am supposed to tell her that she looks wonderful.

  2. I will do social lies, but the better I know someone the less likely I am to lie to them. The most recent example was an invitation to an acquaintance’s wedding. When pressed I just said “We have a conflict.” The truth is I find them to be staggering boors and would rather spend an equivalent amount of time staring at a tree. The vagueness of this particular lie is useful because it doesn’t lead to easy fact-checking.

    I will lie to my wife, but only about the least consequential things such as to preserve a birthday surprise.

    I think a kid would be the last person I would lie to. They tend to remember the things you least want them to and you’re going to be stuck with them for years.

  3. Oh, and lie about sex. No matter how bad it was you don’t tell a woman that it was bad, that is just mean. You know you will probably never see this woman again. She doesn’t want to see you again, she just wanted the night. Don’t hurt her feelings.

  4. When I was little my grandmother told me terrifying stories about what happened to little kids on escalators. (Getting their pants caught and their legs eaten.) I still jump over the last step to avoid getting my body parts crushed. (I don’t even know if this is really a lie, but it is still unnecessarily scary. But I suppose that is what you get when your Grandparents are in the funeral business. Unnecessary scariness.)

    I actually have a good friend who pretty much constantly lies to people to avoid dealing with any conflict. Including her fiance (now husband) to whom she lied about how they were paying for their wedding. Hilariously when this same tactic is employed on her by her entire family she becomes incredibly pissed.

  5. @Gabrielbrawley:

    Also, I have learned that no matter what my wife is wearing I am supposed to tell her that she looks wonderful.

    Tip: If you wife is about to leave the house looking like a hobo, you should tell her the truth. Contrary to what guys think, we’re not looking for reassurance at any cost… most of the time we’re asking for a second set of eyes.

    I’d be pissed if my husband told me I looked great when I actually looked like I barely know how to dress myself. I don’t want to look like a fool when I go out in public.

  6. Lying to kids is really hard – they remember everything, which is roughly what I forget. Much better to tell the awful truth and get it over with.

    I told my then 3 year old son that his penis was private as he sat happily giving a play by play of its status (it’s big! It’s little again! Now it’s big!). [Child name], your penis is private. Child: Not this one! So the truth doesn’t always work either…

  7. @Elyse: I tried that a few times. I have been told that my purpose when she asks the “How do I look” question is to tell her she looks good.

    I am allowed to say “You look great but are you sure that is the right look for _______”

  8. Lying is usually short-term easy, but long-term hard. With a lie, you can cover something you’re embarrassed about, or something inappropriate… but if it gets out that you’ve lied, then you’ve got more problems than if you’d told the truth.

  9. This discussion reminds me of the concept of ‘Lies-to-children’ in the excellent ‘Science of Discworld’ books by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen.

    The concept is that when talking about science (and other things) we often tell ‘lies-to-children’ – oversimplifications that are not quite right, but prepare us for someday learning the actual truth. Examples are ‘Columbus proved the Earth is round’ and ‘Evolution is the survival of the fittest.’

    I know we’re talking about something else here, but I like to get Terry Pratchett into the conversation from time to time. By the way, read the Science of Discworld books, they are awesome.

  10. When I was a kid, I’d tell my little brothers some pretty outrageous stories now and then if they asked me a question I didn’t know the answer to (like why it’s called “kitty litter”).

    When I have kids, I’m going to need to be careful about striking a balance between teaching my children about the true nature of the world and just plain lying my balls off for the fun of it. We are a storytelling species, and storytelling is all the more fun when the person listening is inclined to believe you.

  11. There are certain situations where people don’t *want* they truth – they want you to lie to them, but they don’t want it to be obvious. Like, most “how are you”-type questions are filler and not real concern. They don’t want details about the pulled muscle or gastrointestinal problems. I think most “how do I look” or “do I look fat” questions fall into that category.

    There are also times when the lie is “necessary” for expediency. Usually these are lies that are semi-true but perhaps misleading. When an ultra-conservative friend of my mother asks me if I’ve got a girlfriend, I give the technically-correct answer of “no”, but leave out the “but there’s this cute guy I’ve been seeing…”.

    In general, though, if it’s anything of substance, I find it’s far better to tell the truth: even complex truths are usually easier, in the long run, than simple lies.

  12. Aaron,

    Telling outrageous whoppers is a game I play with my kids sometimes – they love to see how creative I can get when they ask me some simple question, like whether I had a color TV when I was a kid. BTW, they can tell I’m doing it after about 2 secconds. Kids are pretty savvy.

  13. @Austin:

    I disagree on “How do I look” but I’ve already addressed that.

    As for “how are you?” I don’t think that counts… it’s a pleasantry more than a question. “How are you?” Your answer is always, “good” or “great”. The “questioner” is asking about your life in the same way saying “bless you” is intended to cast demons from your soul after a sneeze.

  14. I make small lies constantly. Its part of life. When a stranger says “How are you?” They don’t really care and answering as if they did would only disturb and confuse.

    My guidance for this is the length of the relationship. I don’t lie to my wife or daughter ever. I rarely lie to my boss.

  15. My mother-in-law still tells lies in order to manipulate my wife’s behaviors. I don’t mean in a malicious way, I mean in the way you talk to kids way. When my wife was pregnant, and her belly button was sticking out, my mother-in-law told her not to play with it because that is where the umbilical cord attaches, and poking it could cause it to detach and kill the baby. Here’s the kicker, she’s actually a nurse.

  16. @jblumenfeld: The concept is that when talking about science (and other things) we often tell ‘lies-to-children’ – oversimplifications that are not quite right, but prepare us for someday learning the actual truth.

    Nothing more hilarious than how pissed undergraduates in chemistry courses get than when you tell them the Bohr Model of the atom is a damn lie, and VSEPR Theory is a blatant lie, and only when they get to Valence Bond and Hybridization Theory is there any more than a vague truth to what they’re told.

  17. @jblumenfeld: Pratchett is always in order. I probably don’t go far enough in simplifying things for my kids, a trait that I got from my father and it always annoyed me to no end when I was young.

    Lies are tools and highly dependent on context and intent. For example, as Elyse notes in #17 social lies are perfectly acceptable and in fact necessary. When dealing with clients lying in the form of incomplete, obfuscating, or just downright false statements are sometimes necessary just to maintain the business relationship*.

    There was a movement a few years back, probably still going, called something like Extreme Honesty or some such nonsense where you don’t lie about anything ever to anyone no matter what. Really just an excuse to be a jerk by people who like being a jerk.

    *not many clients would be happy to hear “Well, actually our team is pretty sure you’re all functionally at about the level of 5th graders in terms of analytical ability and business acumen, and most of your ideas of how to build this application are simply impossible because you don’t understand the first thing about computers. You did hire experts to build this for you for a reason: tell us *what* you need, not how to do it.” [/rant]

  18. After saying “no” for the 5th time, I usually tell my 3-year-old that we’re out of whatever food/drink/substance he’s demanding to consume. He sometimes catches on to my game, in which case I threaten to throw the item in question in the waste bin if he doesn’t shut up. It’s a dirty tactic, but it keeps my sanity.

  19. @jblumenfeld: You do not say if you agree with the “Lies-to-children” concept, but I would have to argue that these are amongst the more harmful. At least in the two examples you have given, they do not prepare most children for learning the eventual truth. They are simply wrong and for the vast majority of the populace are never corrected. (Go outside and see how many adults still believe that Columbus proved the world isn’t flat.) Maybe I’m missing the concept but it seems to me that once incorrect information is planted, it becomes very hard to dislodge. I think that you can try to teach, in as age-appropriate a manner as possible, the correct information from the begining. You can simplify, even over-simplify if you have to, but there is never a reason to give information that is even slightly incorrect as that then doubles the workload of those that follow as well as the child. First they have to unlearn the wrong information and then they have to learn the right information. Most won’t bother and we wind up with more of the type of adults we have today.

    @Austin: I don’t think lies of ommision count. And, BTW, apparently neither does the Catholic Church (see last Friday’s morning’s quickies).

  20. @teragram42: “Not this one!” Great story, and one to be remembered for just the right moment when (child’s name) is twenty something.

    With the kiddo’s we have always tried to be factual and honest in most all circumstances. I’m will plead guilty to some occasional obfuscation when it suited me but rarely over important things. My wife and I agreed when we got married that if she asked for my opinion about something specifically that I was allowed to give an honest opinion. I still struggle with just listening to her describe a bad day and withholding all my wonderful advice about how to avoid those bad days in the future.

  21. @MathMike: Don’t think of it as lying, think of it as not finishing the sentence. “It’s not you, its me; I don’t like you.”

    I try to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. But, I reserve the right not to tell the whole truth. Like, once, I brought a friend to a holiday party at work. I told my coworkers I met him on the internet. What I didn’t tell them, is that he was originally a trick.

  22. This doesn’t really answer the question but when I was a kid I had my little sister convinced that I was an alien named Blood Crusher that would occassionally inhabit her sisters body in order to research the planet. I had her convinced for YEARS.

    Now that we are both in our twenties she has only this to say: “How do you even crush blood!?”

  23. @dpaul: I’m not really sure how I feel about it. Pratchett / Cohen / Stewart say that for most adults, their knowledge of science amounts to a vaguely remembered pastiche of these ‘lies-to-children.’

    Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with telling children up front that what they are hearing is a simple answer, and that there’s a more comprehensive answer out there. Most kids I know would ache with curiosity if you told them that.

    So bottom line – I think when they’re told lazily (like the Columbus lie) they are harmful. But when told with some care – “Here’s a placeholder that will help get you where you need to be to advance to the next level” they are useful and necessary.

  24. @Gabrielbrawley: No one ever “told” me about it, I just happen to be Worst Case Scenerio Man! I sometimes feel like a walking Murphy’s Law. If something can go wrong, it will go wrong. (I know that’s an over simplifaction-don’t start.) I get nervous in elevators, even though they ARE the safest mode of travel. I just have to keep repeating to myself-“That is very unlike. That is very unlikely.”

  25. I prefer to be vague with my kids because often those answers are enough to satisfy them. “Where do babies come from?” “The Mummy’s belly.” works for now. If they press on then I give more details, but really it’s a fishing expedition for the kids – which is good! Asking questions, asking the right questions is important. the hard questions are when they ask about my dad who died several years ago and “Why can’t we see him?” without resorting to “He’s in heaven” but instead just that he’s not here anymore and he’s no longer in pain. I can say “He’d have loved you so much, and you would’ve loved him too.” isn’t a lie at all. When the bigger questions come about; where do go after we die, I’ll explain all the ideas out there and let them choose which one suits them at that time in their life. (Currently I have a 10 year old atheist and a 5 year old theist)

    With adults I don’t tend to lie either but sometimes one just pops out and even I’m a bit “Why did I say that?!” and it’s usually to exaggerate a story to make it more entertaining. something I think everyone must be guilty of…right?

  26. @jblumenfeld: That’s my point. The “vaguely remembered pastiche”, especially for those that never get advanced (college prep level) science classes is what guides their decision making and leads them to make incorrect conclusions since they are starting with inforrect data. For many people, this will be the ONLY chance to get them correct information.

    (Note: This can hold true for other areas as well as science. American history, the ideals of the founding fathers and how that all bears on civics also comes to mind.)

    But I support your approach and bottom line. As long as the information is correct, it can be left simple and may even spur them on to find out more on their own when you tell them there is more to learn. Nothing wrong with a placeholder as long as it’s true. Just don’t get sloppy and throw out false information.

    (At least not knowingly. This lets everyone who, prior to 2006, taught that Pluto is a planet is off the hook.)

  27. @Lyvvie:

    My name is Elyse Anders, and I endorse this parenting method!

    Seriously. I think this is exactly the right way to answer questions. No need to lie. No need to dole out age inappropriate information either.

    Right now, Moose knows that what’s in my belly is “baby” and that moms are the only people in the world who get to have babies in their bellies. Everyone else just has food.

  28. I strongly think that lying you your children is not a good parently practice, but I must confess I’ve done it on occasion. Just this weekend I was reading a dinosaur book to my 3almost4-year-old and she suddenly got very concerned that a dinosaur would come and crush our house. As this was at about 10pm, I was concerned that she go to bed. After several, and I mean SEVERAL, repetitions of “Honey, dinosaurs are all dead and gone. Honey, all dead and gone are dinosaurs. Honey, dead and gone all dinosaurs are” I must admit I told her I went to Home Depot and bought a dinosaur shield, so we were safe.

  29. My parents never lied to me about much other than the Santa/Easter/Fairy thing (which offends me to this day). They never told me there were monsters, they never threatened me with face-freezing or hell or any of that. They treated me like a regular person, and I appreciated that.

    There are few lies worth telling. The “I have a stomach ache and can’t come out and play” lie might be preferable to telling someone you just don’t have the energy to deal with their shenanigans. Lies of omission or who paid for what at the mall are preferable to the pointless argument between my parents. “No, nothing’s wrong” is preferable to, “Yes, something’s wrong but it’s just that I’m a crazy person and nothing you can say or do will help me right now and you really do not want to open that crazy box because once I get going you’ll never get it shut again, so it’s much better for everyone if I repress it.”

    But mostly, lying is dumb. And lying to kids is dumb, too. Half the time, they know you’re lying. The other half, you’ve freaked them out for no good reason or they’ll resent you for it.

    @Elyse: I concur. My husband knows that the correct answer to “do these pants make me look like the Micheline Man” is the truth.

    @Surly Nymph: Blood Crusher? Great band name.

  30. @Elyse: Is it just culture that determines what information is appropriate for kids, or is there evidence that it does harm if they find things out too early?

  31. People have asked me the strangest questions about what I’d lie to the Offspring about: His adoption? [Well, he’d have to be an idiot not to notice that he’s Asian and I’m not – besides, why would anyone lie about that? It isn’t shameful, or illegal or even fattening.] Mama’s predilection for chemical enhancement in her college days? [Hell, no – I convinced him that I’d know if he even thought of using drugs, so we had some great talks and a lot of trust in that regard.] Where babies come from? [Well, what with the adoption, the poor kid thought, at age four, that his daycare manager was going to have her baby at the airport…]

    I’ve never seen the point of lying to him. Making certain things age-appropriate, sure – but that’s so the kid could comprehend things. Occasionally telling him that some question was re: someone else’s private business, also sure, but that’s just setting boundaries.

    BTW, the playing-with-the-penis thing I solved by telling him that we played with our penises in private. That got a laugh: ‘Silly Mommy! Mommies don’t have penises!’ But the penis-play was confined to his bedroom and the bathtub after that.

    An aside: When I was very young, my grandfather played Santa for the Norwegian Children’s Home. I, therefore, had evidence that Santa not only existed, but was my grandfather. Ha, all you skeptics who would doubt the existence of the Julenisse!

  32. @Shadow Of A Doubt:

    By age-appropriate I don’t mean “your kid is going to be emotionally scarred if you tell them XYZ.” There is information that is not age-appropriate because the kid isn’t going to understand.

    For a 2-year-old, going beyond “baby in mama’s belly” is probably too much for him to understand. Kind of like how I can just tell him something is HOT! without explaining to him how heat conducts. Explain things in terms that they’ll understand. The harm in not doing that is having a kid who isn’t going to listen to you because he has no idea what the fuck you’re talking about.

  33. As a kid, I was often less-than-honest…hey, I needed another day for my multi-level foamcore, plaster of Paris and clay recreation of the dungeon from the Cask of Amontillado…a bit of a fake headache was worth it for my “art”. In ‘the real world’ I wouldn’t lie to skip a day or an event or deadline…the truth is much simpler and less guilt-ridden. But, yes, I have done some bending of the truth (or perhaps, more sins of omission of facts) in pediatrics…if a parent is sure that Mylicon drops (which are low cost and safe) are helping their child be less fussy, I’m often willing to accept their parental placebo effect (they did something for their child, now their child is better). If I told them true efficacy data, they’d stop getting the placebo. With cough medicines, however, which may have a parental placebo effect but also have potential negative side effects, I’m less willing to let their impressions stand unchallenged, and more likely to pull out the numbers.

  34. The only time I’ve found lying to my son useful is when he asks me what something is for the thousandth time, and I tell him I don’t know. Because then he drops it and I can save at least a little bit of my voice for later when he destroys something.

  35. I lie to my kids, and usually do so in a way where they can tell I’m lying. This is mostly done to jump-start storytelling or to get them to look something up. They’re at the point where I shouldn’t always be the provider of easy answers.

  36. When it’s more fun!
    “My town was attacked by the walking dead this morning and I had to wait for the laser-monkeys to get to the scene” is just more fun and colorful than “The train was late and that’s why I’m late for work” or “I overslept”.
    I don’t have any children of my own but I lie to my friends’ kids although, much as Smudge above, I’m careful to make my lies wildly outlandish so it’s sort of a storytelling thing and a way to engage the kid’s imagination.
    And, of course, if you’re going to be lying anyway, I’ve always felt you might as well tell an outrageous lie!

  37. When my wife asks me what I think of a new perfume I usually tell her it makes her bum look big. It’s amazing she hasn’t left me and/or killed me yet.

  38. @Castellan: I can’t say for certain, as I don’t have kids, but I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t. I don’t see the point. I get that there’s that whole mystical, magical aspect, and all the other kids are learning about it, but why build your kid up with a lie and then have to take him down with the truth? I never understood that as a kid and wouldn’t want to do the same to mine.

  39. Social lies of “Fine” in response to “How are you?” But if it’s a telemarketer asking that, they get an earful of all my problems.

    Lies of omission are what I have used mostly; especially at work. They help when I need to recheck some facts or the truth might make my boss or team member look bad. Also, I’ve found the less you say, the less you have to remember what you said to whom. That way, there’s less chance of being caught in any kind of lie.

  40. @jblumenfeld: Absolutely correct. “Lies-to-children” is an important teaching tool (which, as dpaul said, can be abused by being lazy). My wife is basically incapable of lying, and tends to over-inform our kids on subjects (they glaze over and stop listening). She is aware of this, but her inability to massage truth shackles her in that respect.

    I always tell my kids if the real explanation is more complicated, or even if I might be wrong (“I think it is like this, but I would have to check to be sure”). They seem to respect that.

    I also feed my son cool science trivia (my daughter is too young for it, but soon… soon…), especially stuff from the news. He laps it up, and impresses his teachers at school with his nuggets of information (his peers are not clued up enough to get jazzed about nifty science facts yet, it seems).

  41. I’m really surprised that many of you consider “storytelling” to be “lying” but then say it’s okay because it’s “storytelling”.

    I don’t think fantasy play with the intention of engaging the imagination is lying. Lying is when a person is deliberately covering up the truth and is using the lie in place of what really happened. Reading Cat in the Hat and watching The Princess Bride is not lying.

    Telling your kid that there’s iocaine powder in your coffee so they better not take a single sip of it, without any intention of coming clean or asking them if they think that’s true, is lying. Telling them that there’s iocaine powder in your coffee then asking them “how can you tell I’m lying?” Or telling them that the leprechaun in the corner put it in your drink, is not actually lying.

  42. I lie for convenience plenty of times, even though I sometimes feel guilty about doing it. I’ve noticed that in some cities, all kinds of men will hit on me constantly. I’ve resorted to telling men I already have a boyfriend or I’m married. It’s just so difficult to tell a complete stranger that I don’t like him because he’s twice my age or doesn’t have any teeth or smells funny. I realize that the problem will never be solved if these men don’t even realize they have a problem, but there’s just no polite way to tell someone that they need to shower more frequently or go to a dentist.

    I’m also really picky about certain foods, and I’ve been tempted to lie and just say I’m allergic, but I’m afraid that someone will ask follow-up questions out of innocent curiosity, and then my lie will be exposed. Most people are respectful of my eating habits, but I recently had a hostess insist that I try several things. It was too late to lie by that point, but I managed to avoid a big argument by apologizing for not liking so many things.

  43. @Gabrielbrawley: I just want to add that I fear this as well (been reading this thread and just now decided to chime in). I saw a Rescue 911 episode about this! Some little kid got his pants stuck in it and it was cutting off his circulation — been irrationally anxious about this ever since.

  44. @Gabrielbrawley: Lol, who knows how accurate any of it was (I’m sure it could have been sensationalized), but Rescue 911 was a show hosted by William Shatner that retold stories that came through 911 dispatch — cheesy reenactments and all.

    They also had interviews with the people involved. I remember one episode where a girl got her tongue stuck in a Yoohoo bottle. When she met up with the Paramedics that helped her she gave them flowers . . . in a Yoohoo bottle :-P

  45. I’m not sure if this counts as lying, or just ignorance combined with laziness, but one of my big pet peeves is when parents lie to/misinform their kids at the zoo. I am constantly hearing misidentifications (sometimes humorous, though no examples are springing to mind), or “mommy, daddy, baby” assignments being made willy-nilly. Sometimes just completely random, incorrect information, when there is a sign RIGHT BY THE ANIMAL clearly identifying it and providing interesting facts.

    On a slightly related note, my dad told my sister that unicorns and walruses were only imaginary. She didn’t believe in walruses for years.

  46. @maggie:
    I think we’re missing out on an awesome lie to go along with Santa… the Krampus!

    It bears repeating that Saint Nicholas is not the same as Santa Claus. In Europe, we have both. The former comes at the beginning of the month (around the 5th or 6th) and Santa comes at X-mas.

    Saint Nicholas is obviously a much more (Catholic?) religious figure though. So that might explain why he disappeared in the US.

    I had not heard of the Krampus yet. Awesome …

  47. I agree in principle that one should not lie to children. However, I have been known to tell my son (who is too young to fully understand how Tivo works) “That episode of Dinosaur Train isn’t on today” rather than “If Mommy hears Tiny say ‘No flowers,whyyyyyyyyy?’ one more time, Mommy will claw her fucking ears off.”

  48. At my last job, the one I quit after a month because I couldn’t take the managerial incompetence any more, I would regularly say that the new person was great, wonderful, excellent, and I loved working with them. I said this because if I was honest, which would usually mean saying, “They need some training on X, Y and Z,” the owner would fire them, and we really could not afford to lose people.

  49. My Mom simply had to nonchalantly mention the “bad” kids she had before my brother and I, who were sent down to the dusty, creepy crawl space under the house.

    My Mom could get away with those things though, because my brother and I learned about sarcasm early in life. If anything it made me less gullible, and it made me question adults a little more than my friends did.

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