Many years ago I used to give one of my favorite talks of all time, which was about how it’s okay to lie to kids. I wrote it for atheists and skeptics who often worry that lying to kids about Santa Claus is damaging to them. These people tend to think that truth and honesty are of the utmost importance when teaching your kids about the world, because these parents want their kids to A) trust them and B) emulate them by learning to value truth and honesty, too. For atheists in particular, there’s the added facet of not mimicking something that they themselves may have gone through and felt bitterness about in the past, in which you realize there is no god and everyone around you has been “lying” to you (and/or themselves) your entire life. That argument comes up surprisingly often in atheist circles, which…atheists, if you feel an intense bitterness about learning there is no god, and/or if you feel a matching bitterness regarding learning there is no Santa, I beg you to seek therapy. I’m not (just) being flippant, here: you don’t need to go through life with that kind of anger. Work through it. You, and everyone around you, will be the better for it.
But really I have always sympathized with parents’ desire to demonstrate positive values to their kids and to do that by skipping the whole Santa thing. While I don’t think it’s a big deal if a parent does that, I don’t actually think it’s necessary and I said as much in my talk. I pointed out that child psychologists have found that kids use things like Santa as a way to teach themselves all the characteristics that skeptics and atheists tend to value: critical thinking, and not blindly believing things people tell you, even if those people are authority figures. I believed in Santa as a kid, and then got suspicious so I started quizzing my parents. I compared handwriting samples. I left an actual series of questions for Santa next to the plate of cookies and the glass of milk, and then I went over the answers “Santa” left for me and tried to figure out if they made sense.
That’s skepticism. That’s curiosity and investigation. In my talk I pointed out a study in which researchers made up a Santa-like figure called the Candy Witch. They told a bunch of little kids that on Halloween, children who put candy under their pillows will find that the Candy Witch will come and swap it out for money while they sleep. Then they had some of the kids’ parents actually leave money under their kids’ pillows.
Kids who were very young, like 4, would either believe or disbelieve the Candy Witch in equal numbers regardless of whether or not their parents played along. But older kids, around 6, were more likely to believe in the Candy Witch if their parents played along. In other words, the researchers identified a time in kids’ lives when they start learning critical thinking, looking for evidence to either support or refute the extraordinary claims they’re told.
Kids who believe in Santa do so because of critical thinking: they wouldn’t believe if they didn’t see Santa at the mall, get the presents they asked him for, and see that he ate the cookies they left. It’s only later once they’re older that they’re even capable of finding new evidence, and one big piece of evidence is the realization that maybe adults are lying to you.
I think that’s a great lesson for kids to eventually learn. Sure, you don’t want to go to far and leave a kid with no one to trust ever, but it’s also no good to shelter a kid from the world to the point that they reach adulthood without ever learning that people lie and try to trick you. And for that reason and because I think it’s funny, I lie to kids all the time. I told a friend’s kid I was a vampire, for instance, when I got two bug bites next to one another. I loved seeing him roll that idea around in his head, figuring out whether I was screwing with him. He started asking questions about why he had seen me in the sunlight, and whether I was allergic to garlic. He eventually decided that I was, in fact, a lying liar, and we had a good laugh about it.
I’ve held my pro-lying opinion for some time but as a skeptic, I know that if I see evidence that, for instance, lying to kids about Santa is an absolutely bad thing, I will change my mind. That’s why I was very interested to recently see a paper claiming that “Children told lies by parents subsequently lie more as adults and face adjustment difficulties,” according to a press release from the University that sponsored the research.
Psychologists at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University surveyed 379 “young adults” (it’s a psychology study so you’d be safe guessing that these were all students) and asked them to recall how often their parents lied to them as kids and how often they lie to their parents today, and then they took a test that gauged their selfishness, impulsivity, and general maladaptiveness.
Sure enough, they say they found that people who reported that their parents lied to them as children were more likely to say they lie to their parents in return, and were more likely to be aggressive, break rules, and display “intrusive behaviors” in otherwise polite society.
So there we go, open and shut, right? Parents lying to kids = bad. Well…maybe! But the university press release, like far too many university press releases, makes some understandable mistakes that might give you the wrong idea.
The researchers point out that this study does not actually show that parents lying to kids leads to those kids being maladjusted liars. All of this was self-reported by the (grown-up) kids in question. This study actually shows that people who lie to their parents are more likely to display other maladaptive traits, and those people are more likely to recall their parents lying to them. We don’t actually know how often these societal black sheep’s parents actually did lie to them. Even if all participants were able to accurately recall how often their parents lied to them, we also don’t know if parents who lie a lot to their kids are more likely to have other poor parental skills that may lead to their kids growing up a little screwy.
Finally, this study doesn’t differentiate between lies. Parents may lie to, for instance, get a kid to stop whining in the store by saying “if you’re good we will come back and by that toy later.” Or, a parent might say to a kid who hits his little sibling, “if you aren’t good Santa won’t bring you toys.” Or, a parent might tell a kid who is crying “if you keep crying I’m going to drive you to the orphanage, drop you off, and you will never see your family again.” Not every lie is equal, or equally likely to screw someone up in the long run.
Do these blank spots in the study mean that the study is worthless? Absolutely not! I’ve mentioned this before but I will mention it again: no single study will answer all the questions about a subject. Hell, it won’t even answer the specific question it’s asking; it just gives one possible answer that follow-up studies will hopefully make clearer.
This study may suggest that parents want to be careful to not lie constantly to their kids when telling them the truth might be a little harder. When it comes to something like Santa, though, it’s not enough to make anyone worry. 85% of all American kids grow up believing in Santa, and while America is super fucked up in a lot of ways, most people are still basically good, moral people. I know, you don’t want to believe that and there are days when I don’t, but it’s true. Most people are okay.
Not me, of course. My parents really screwed me up with that Santa stuff, and that’s what I plan to tell the cops if they ever catch me. Merry Christmas!