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Won't Somebody Think of the Children?
December 24, 2008 10:21 PM   Subscribe

Lies We Tell Kids
posted by Navelgazer (157 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
Previously
posted by anifinder at 10:42 PM on December 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


Useful Advice For Children
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 10:47 PM on December 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


A coauthor friend thinks that the Santa & Easter Bunny memes, aside from merely being fun, also serve as an inoculation against excessive religious belief, well God is just a Santa for adults after all.
posted by jeffburdges at 10:51 PM on December 24, 2008 [6 favorites]


God, what a typically awful and uninspired piece of turgid shit from Paul Graham. The man has never had an interesting idea in his life, besides getting rich in the dotcom boom. He makes your average corporate consultant look like Lord Byron.

Merry Christmas.
posted by nasreddin at 10:54 PM on December 24, 2008 [14 favorites]


Well, it's certainly true we lie to kids a lot. My wife is pregnant right now, and earlier this evening, we were discussing having our first Christmas with our son next year, and the elaborate lies and mythology we will have to create.

"Oh, Santa brought these presents."

"The Tooth Fairy will leave money under your pillow."

"The Easter Bunny left you some eggs."

What a fucked up weird mythology have we created as a vast adult conspiracy as a fictitious world for our children to grow up in.

I remember growing up, getting out of college, and all of a sudden having to learn all kinds of truths about the world that were never a part of my formal education.

I think softening the edges of the world are good for kids to feel secure growing up, but parents really ought to help prepare their kids for life, and filling their heads with lies, in the long run, doesn't help.

Maybe we should sit our kids down, some time in their teens, and just correct every lie we ever told them.
posted by MythMaker at 10:54 PM on December 24, 2008 [9 favorites]


I can't get Andy Rooney's voice out of my head while I'm reading the article.
posted by redsparkler at 10:56 PM on December 24, 2008 [7 favorites]


eponypoignant
posted by Navelgazer at 10:59 PM on December 24, 2008 [3 favorites]


That was excellent. Thank you for posting it.

Maybe we should sit our kids down, some time in their teens, and just correct every lie we ever told them.

That would at some point involve acknowledging and correcting the lies we continue to believe.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:00 PM on December 24, 2008 [8 favorites]


The lies we tell our kids are basically the lies we tell ourselves. It's not as if each adult stares unblinkingly into the abyss each day. Why should we expect our 10 year olds to? They have not yet fully developed the metal mechanisms of denial. So, we perform the denial for them.
Denial is an important coping strategy. We know, but we pretend not to know.
posted by specialfriend at 11:02 PM on December 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


I remember being a kid and being really angry at the fact that society in general seemed to think that it was okay to lie to kids, and that ignorance and gullibility were part of what made children cute. I wondered about what as-yet-undiscovered secrets lie in wait about the darker true nature of the world, concealed from me by adults hoping to keep me cute for their enjoyment.

I felt this all through elementary school- there was a certain horror in knowing that there were things out there- dangers?- that people would actively conceal from me, and that I wouldn't find out what these dangers were until I was victimized by them.
posted by Jpfed at 11:14 PM on December 24, 2008 [19 favorites]


Oh man, I love Paul Graham (usually). I'd give a minor appendage to be able to write essays with such clarity and incisiveness. Yes, he glosses over inconvenient bits sometimes, but on the whole, dude is on point.

[reads the article]

A lot of the bits about suburbia and modern specialized economies echoes stuff he's written in other essays (in particular, "Why Nerds are Unpopular"previously—which is only partly about the topic stated in the title).

I don't intend to have children, but if I ever change my mind, I intend to be as honest with my kids as I can be. I think people underestimate kids, out of a sometimes misguided sense of protectiveness.

the heart attack had taken most of a day to kill him.

This is scary. My father had a heart attack—his first, though he's had other heart trouble in the past—a couple of months ago. Before this happened, I had the idea that a heart attack was an instantaneous event lasting no more than a minute, and that once it was over, you were either (a) dead, or (b) okay. Thankfully, he's okay, but it was not instantaneous: he was writhing on the hospital bed in apoplectic agony a full hour after symptoms had started to manifest.

I didn't really grasp I was going to die till I was about 19.

It was more like 24 or 25 for me. Of course, I knew, in the intellectual sense, that I was going to die someday, but it was a purely abstract knowledge—devoid of context and meaning, like the disembodied names and dates I'd been forced to memorize in high school history. I don't remember, exactly, when I first really understood that my life was finite, and that it was 100% impossible to accomplish all of the awesome things I wanted to do (or even any significant fraction of them) in the available time, but it was certainly a turning point in the way I thought and approached life.

if you tell a kid they're a member of a certain group, that seems nearly impossible to shake.

Curiously, I don't think my parents ever told me this (at least not in any remotely explicit way), though there are any number of groups to which they could have assigned me. And, to this day, I'm severely allergic to groupthink and labels and identity politics. Perhaps not a coincidence. (Thanks, Mom and Dad.)

yes, the turkey had wanted to die, and in fact had lived its whole life with the aim of being their Thanksgiving dinner

It's been a long time since I've been even remotely shrill or uptight about my vegetarianism (I've even had fish and chicken a few times in the last year), but this particular lie bothers me. Maybe because the parents were lying to themselves, in a way. They didn't believe what they told the child, of course, but they were lying to themselves by omission. Most people simply choose not to think of their food as coming from sentient beings which, much like themselves, would really prefer not to be killed and eaten—although that's exactly what it is.

So I guess it bothers me because they're not protecting the child from anything; they have no intention of admitting the ruse at some future date, when the child is better equipped to understand it; they're simply perpetuating a tradition of denial and self-deception.

All in all, a wonderful and thought-provoking essay. Thanks!
posted by greenie2600 at 11:16 PM on December 24, 2008 [3 favorites]


That would at some point involve acknowledging and correcting the lies we continue to believe.

Which makes it all the more urgent an exercise. Though I suspect that was your point.
posted by greenie2600 at 11:20 PM on December 24, 2008


If you ask adults why they lie to kids, the most common reason they give is to protect them. And kids do need protecting. The environment you want to create for a newborn child will be quite unlike the streets of a big city. It's certainly not a bad lie to tell, to give a baby the impression the world is quiet and warm and safe. But this harmless type of lie can turn sour if left unexamined. Imagine if you tried to keep someone in as protected an environment as a newborn till age 18.

Unexamined? No. Unammended. You don't dump the entire weight of the world in a child's lap for a reason, like he says, but what happens later on isn't an "examination"; it's a panning out, letting more of the world in and letting the myths fade away. Parenthood, in other words. This needed 2500 words and eight pairs of eyes going over the draft before it was finalized? I don't mean to sound anti-intellectual, but there's more bloat in this article than a Michael Bay flick.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 11:21 PM on December 24, 2008 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I've always wondered if the reason people start to lie as they grow older is because they subconsciously remember the day they found out that their parents, the two people in their life who are meant to be examples as to how to live their own life, lied to them about Santa and the Easter Bunny. It would be interesting to get a child psychologists perspective.
posted by Effigy2000 at 11:30 PM on December 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


what happens later on isn't an "examination"; it's a panning out

Um, what's the difference, aside from semantics? Whatever you call the process by which we realize that some of the things we were taught as children were inaccurate or incomplete, it is an essential part of growing into a stable adult who can cope with the world unassisted. That's all he's saying, and it sounds like you agree on this point—so I'm not sure where your objection lies.

I don't think he's driving at any kind of agenda, such as "we shouldn't lie to kids, ever, about anything" (he even specifically disavows this particular agenda in his preface). He's just examining an interesting sociological phenomenon that is rarely talked about.
posted by greenie2600 at 11:32 PM on December 24, 2008


Some insightful points, and the idea of a "truth debt" is very interesting food for thought (and hard to appreciate until you've reached a certain age), but Graham's wrong about George Washington Carver:
It's obvious now that he was on the list because he was black (and for that matter that Marie Curie was on it because she was a woman), but as a kid I was confused for years about him. I wonder if it wouldn't have been better just to tell us the truth: that there weren't any famous black scientists. Ranking George Washington Carver with Einstein misled us....
Carver's on the list because he's black, but as much because he's that rare figure, the scientist publicly acclaimed by laymen and politicians. In that, he's like Einstein, and also in that his principal scientific achievements came early, and had largely ended once he became a public figure, replaced by scientific advocacy and general advising on non-scientific matters,

In his time, and during Jim Crow, Carver wow'd official Washington, and not because he was black. At his death he was honored by the first Federal memorial for a non-president. In part this was to cement black Americans' affections during WWII, but it also shows how much (white) America valued Carver long before it became Politically Correct to make sure any list of accomplished people included a black person.

What it means that the niche of the public epitome of "scientist" in 20th century America was occupied first by a former slave, then by an immigrant Jew, is a topic for another time.

(But I might suggest that's because Americans, valuing the pragmatic and practical are fond of engineers (Henry Ford, Herbert Hoover, etc.) but have always seen the scientist as foreign and strange and odd, an unlikely sort of marvel, a talking dog or a horse that can calculate sums, if you will, and so a role where stereotypes could be suspended.)
posted by orthogonality at 11:36 PM on December 24, 2008 [3 favorites]


Um, what's the difference, aside from semantics? Whatever you call the process by which we realize that some of the things we were taught as children were inaccurate or incomplete, it is an essential part of growing into a stable adult who can cope with the world unassisted. That's all he's saying, and it sounds like you agree on this point—so I'm not sure where your objection lies.

The difference is about 2400 words. I get where he's coming from, but it's a rambling, overwrought, mental onanism over the obvious. He pretty much reaches his conclusion about a fourth of the way in, and then just spins his wheels. Call it a matter of taste, I guess.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 11:40 PM on December 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


I dislike Graham very much, but rather than argue, I'd like to take the time to wish all of you a happy holiday season and a pleasant solar or lunar calendrical new year. I hope you're all surrounded by or at least chatting with some friends, and for those of you that are feeling lonely, I'm happy to converse anytime.

Take care, everybody!
posted by StrikeTheViol at 11:43 PM on December 24, 2008 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I've always wondered if the reason people start to lie as they grow older is because they subconsciously remember the day they found out that their parents, the two people in their life who are meant to be examples as to how to live their own life, lied to them about Santa and the Easter Bunny. It would be interesting to get a child psychologists perspective.

Growing up, my parents always told us that there was no Santa, Easter Bunny, or Tooth Fairy not for religious reasons, but because they thought it was wrong to lie to little kids like that. We still got Christmas presents and an Easter basket and money for teeth that fell out, but we knew where it was all coming from. I have only met one other person that had the same experience growing up.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 11:46 PM on December 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


The same is true for me, Mary, and I'm very thankful for it.

Speaking of lies, my uncle would apparently tell his daughters that the rides in front of the supermarket electrocute you when you sit in them.
posted by HeroZero at 11:53 PM on December 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Call it a matter of taste, I guess.

He has an essay about that, too :)

Graham's essays never have a single conclusion. To some extent, they aren't about conclusions—they're about questions. He's a hacker, and hackers have naturally curious minds that like to turn things over, and take them apart, and see how they fit together, and see where they lead—even if only for the pleasure of doing so.

I like his stuff partly because I enjoy going on that journey with him. And if that's onanism—well, I onanate in a less metaphorical sense on a regular basis, and that's fun too.

There are other, less fripperous reasons I like his stuff (yes, "onanate" and "fripperous" are both trademarked, thank you), but I should probably go to sleep now. Yuletide salutations, all.
posted by greenie2600 at 12:01 AM on December 25, 2008 [3 favorites]


Yes, happy holidays, every one.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 12:08 AM on December 25, 2008


It's also fun to lie to children. Earlier this evening, I was telling my nephew that I try to catch Santa Claus every year so I can get his magic bag of toys. He might have even believed me.

I don't quite get these people who talk about how disillusioned they were when they found out the truth about Santa Claus. How they were absolutely crushed by the revelation that their parents LIED to them and even, gasp, gave them presents! The nerve! When they figured out that the look-me-in-the-eye-and-say-that lie detector technique wasn't real, did they cry themselves to sleep because there's no such thing as telepathy?
posted by stavrogin at 12:13 AM on December 25, 2008 [8 favorites]


Graham's essays never have a single conclusion. To some extent, they aren't about conclusions—they're about questions. He's a hacker, and hackers have naturally curious minds that like to turn things over, and take them apart, and see how they fit together, and see where they lead

In his case, they lead only to the shallow depths of a very pedestrian mind. Occasionally the questions are interesting, but the answers are so padded with needless verbiage and embarrassing banality that you'll regret having asked them in the first place.
posted by nasreddin at 12:14 AM on December 25, 2008 [3 favorites]


You know, adults lie to each other too. Kids aren't so special.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:16 AM on December 25, 2008 [3 favorites]


Am I scrooged or what?
posted by iamkimiam at 12:16 AM on December 25, 2008


Guess what? In the end, it turns out the Catholic church has been trying to keep people from knowing that Jesus had children, and Sophie Neveu is Jesus' last living relative.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 12:29 AM on December 25, 2008 [7 favorites]


I liked the article. I did start to skim because, as Marisa said, he started spinning his wheels but I did find it useful. Thanks for posting this.

Our soon-to-be 8 year old daughter is a champ at figuring things out on her own. She told us Santa was a fake (she's Jewish - what can I say?) and that a mouse didn't steal her tooth and leave money under her pillow. We laugh and agree with her. I love that she's able to start discerning truth from fiction and we do nothing to inhibit that.

My wife and I try our hardest to be honest and truthful about the world while letting her know that she is safe with us, her family and friends. We've explained sex, what the organs are called, what drugs are, what criminals are and the list goes on. We do not tell her these things unless she asks because if she asks, we figure shes ready to know.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 12:42 AM on December 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


MaryDellamorte writes "Growing up, my parents always told us that there was no Santa, Easter Bunny, or Tooth Fairy not for religious reasons, but because they thought it was wrong to lie to little kids like that. "

My dad told us because he was broke, to explain why "Santa" wouldn't be showing up for us. He did give me a present from himself, a dollar-store-style "solar powered cigarette lighter", stamped metal parabolic mirror with a little hinged two-pronged fork to hold the cigarette, which when extended sat in the mirror's focus and ostensibly could light the cigarette. Not being a smoker at the age of seven, I didn't know almost any cigarette lighting requires the smoker to inhale to get the burning started. But it exemplified a scientific principle, so Dad was happy.
posted by orthogonality at 12:55 AM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Someone post that bit from Hogfather about childhood lies being practice for believing in Justice, Rightness, and so forth.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:08 AM on December 25, 2008


I lie to little kids because it's fun. You can tell them anything until about the age of 7 and they'll believe you. Even until 9 or 10 they'll accept a lot of pretty thin explanations for stuff against their better judgment.
posted by fshgrl at 1:43 AM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm the oldest of all my cousins. Having a cousin who was a "baby" was more or less a fact of life for me growing up. Even now, we all get together and there's a "kids table" that is a serious insitution that must be observed. Or, at least, there was. Tonight I got together with my (admittedly underage) cousins and drank scotch while we composed a letter to Santa. We crammed it full of inside jokes that had arisen in the last two days since we've all been together.

We could all finally admit to each other the absurdness of this one lie that had been told to all of us at one point or another. Between sentences questioning the union status of Santa's reindeer we shared stories about the exact moment we learned there was no Santa Claus, and the whole thing really brought home how much fun we liked to have with each other. Sure, it's a good 20-60% is at each other's expense, but why else call it family?

I don't say any of this to dig at the author's point. We, as a culture, lie to kids needlessly all the time. And most of the time it's to everyone's detriment. But for one night, on one Eurocentric, capitalisitic holiday, a lie to children actually managed to bring some people together.

A lie to children and booze that is...
posted by Doublewhiskeycokenoice at 1:44 AM on December 25, 2008


Particularly interesting in the context of this recent article and discussion. "Because they'd freak out if they knew the truth." Maybe there should be a bit more freaking out going on.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:10 AM on December 25, 2008


I don't mean to sound anti-intellectual, but there's more bloat in this article than a Michael Bay flick.

Being concise is an intellectual quality. It also saves time.
posted by ersatz at 3:10 AM on December 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


Well, it's certainly true we lie to kids a lot. My wife is pregnant right now, and earlier this evening, we were discussing having our first Christmas with our son next year, and the elaborate lies and mythology we will have to create.

Last year, my niece asked my sister to tell her The Truth about Santa Claus.

My sister asked her "Do you know what "truth" means?"

My niece said "....no...."

So they had a nice discussion on the meaning of "truth" rather than Santa.

So if you think Santa and the Easter Bunny are complicated, wait until he asks how his pending sibling got into Mommy's tummy.

Seriously, my sister never saw that one coming. Even her JD couldn't prepare her for that one.

It's also fun to lie to children. Earlier this evening, I was telling my nephew that I try to catch Santa Claus every year so I can get his magic bag of toys.

My grandfather used to tell us that he was going to shoot the Easter Bunny.

My uncle told my sister he was going to flush her down the toilet, thus undoing all potty training to that point. My mother was not amused.
posted by louche mustachio at 3:15 AM on December 25, 2008 [3 favorites]


My older brother told me that milk was cow piss. I didn't believe him, because he waited too long - I'd seen both produced. People who think lying to children is 'fun' have something wrong with them.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:02 AM on December 25, 2008 [6 favorites]


The only thing I got out of that was that I'm smarter than Paul Graham. I figured out those lies at a much younger age.

And what was up with the freeper whargarbl? After the beatification of King and Kennedy, I was expecting him to go off on fiat currency or the legality of income tax.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 4:18 AM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


People who think lying to children is 'fun' have something wrong with them.

So all those people who lie to their kids about Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny, The Tooth Fairy and Transubstantiation have a reason besides the fact that its fun? What on earth could that possibly be?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:31 AM on December 25, 2008


Also, FWIW, my own parents lied to me about all that stuff. I began to doubt them as soon as I gained the capacity to reason. I don't recall feeling betrayed by those lies though -- they just struck me as another of those stupid fictions that adults like to tell themselves to make the world more convenient for themselves, like 'we only want what's best for you'. The latter, IMO, is a much more insidious lie than any of that Father Christmas/Easter Bunny shit.

When will they ever man up and admit, 'we only ever want you to do things that are coherent with our irrational and limited value system'. At least then you wouldn't feel guilty when you respond with the inevitable 'go fuck yourselves'.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:40 AM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


My dad used to tell us that by the time Santa got to our house he was really going to need a cold beer, which is what we left out for him right before going to bed.
posted by The Straightener at 5:53 AM on December 25, 2008 [7 favorites]


You know, adults lie to each other too.

*coughBushcough*
posted by bwg at 5:58 AM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Paul Graham is both tired and annoying. And essays from several months ago are all the more tired. Was this on Reedit yesterday?
posted by chunking express at 6:00 AM on December 25, 2008


in the case of religion, just because paul graham doesn't believe it doesn't mean it's a lie

in the case of ethnic identities and traditions, just because paul graham doesn't like them, doesn't mean that they are lies

he needs to study english a little more and understand that "lie" and "belief" are not the same word - it's one thing to argue that people are mistaken - it's quite another to say that they're lying

there are plenty of societies where parents don't mind if their teenage kids have sex—indeed, where it's normal for 14 year olds to become mothers.

and in some of those societies, it's also normal for those 14 year old mothers to die in childbirth and suffer crippling effects from having children so early

the man doesn't know enough, nor does he think enough about what he writes
posted by pyramid termite at 6:02 AM on December 25, 2008 [6 favorites]


My mum was always pretty honest about everything to us. She would just tell us the truth if asked without much embellishment. By doing so she made sex and drugs seem pretty mundane - there was no mystic for us.

I remember when my brother and I were quite young (about 9 and 6) and we got a kitten. Tuppence we called her, she was a cute little tortoiseshell.

Tuppence was always quite small, but when it came time we took her to the vet to be neutered. When we went to pick her up the vet called Mum aside, leaving my brother and I in the waiting room.

We both immediately burst into tears, knowing from the mood something was wrong. Mum came back and explained that Tuppence turned out to have a bad heart and had died while she was recovering. We were very upset but understood.

A few years later the story came up again and Mum told me that the vet had actually suggested to her to tell us that the kitten had "run away". She'd gotten indignant at such a suggestion and given him a piece of her mind in regards to that kind of deceit. "I don't lie to my children" I can imagine her exclaiming at this man, with a toss of her head. "They would spend days searching for the cat and it would drag on. Much better for them to know the truth."

Conversely my father was very much about the protective type of truth embellishing, which is one reason I found it difficult to deal with him knowing the truth from one parent and a clouded view from the other (we did not live with him so the influence was much weaker). He could never break the habit - even when we were in our thirties and it took him ages to finally tell us he was dying of lung cancer.

There are lies, there is truth and floating between them is the realm of fantasy and fun, the place of Santas and the Tooth Faeries, not so much lies as a little dallying into escapism.
posted by gomichild at 6:05 AM on December 25, 2008 [3 favorites]


I really don't understand the "lying to children because it's fun" thing. I don't even like being around kids and never want my own, but I would never do that. Every time an adult lied to me for sport it made me angry, sad, and anxious, plus it made me distrustful of the adult and I did not want to be anywhere near them ever again. I truly did cry sometimes when I figured out an adult had lied to me just because they had thought it was funny. I didn't like when adults would lie to protect me from certain subjects or bad news either, but that was more understandable. No one likes being the butt of someone else's dumb joke, especially children.

I know people with that mindset like to say crap like, "Oh lighten up, it didn't irreparably screw you up," or try to argue I learned some valuable lesson from it, but you could argue the same thing for punching strangers in the face. It's a dick thing to do no matter how much you justify it. There's a reason people think less of those whose jokes basically consist of making someone else look stupid because they don't get it. To do it to a child is unnecessary and insensitive. It's not even clever.
posted by Nattie at 6:09 AM on December 25, 2008 [16 favorites]


Because of this I think I have a tendency to overreact when I catch someone being dishonest. As a child I wanted ever so much to find proof that magic was real, that with diligent study one could become a wizard . . . I didn't want to just believe in Santa Claus, I wanted to be Santa Claus. Every time one of those fucking Tim Allen movies is aired on TV, I watch, and I cry like a baby.

As an adult I do appreciate how Myth informs the human condition, and as long as one presents myth and legend to children as a lesson in the humanities, it is advantageous in preparing them for adulthood.

Lying, especially to protect yourself from the consequences of your actions, is very likely the reason so many people want to believe in a just god, or at least karma, when it seems there is no justice in the world. We want to believe that someday somehow deceivers will get their just desserts. Teaching children that there is in fact an omniscient being who rewards good behavior and punishes bad behavior is I think the worst possible way of addressing the issue of real-world injustice--it only excuses people (especially parents) from owning up to their own mistakes. "Jesus died for our sins" effectively gives all Christians permission to be as sinful as they wanna be. Fuck that.

I want future generations to understand that it falls on them to establish, implement and enforce standards of human conduct for the optimal benefit of all living things--because there ain't nobody else gonna do it for them.
posted by Restless Day at 6:13 AM on December 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


People who think lying to children is 'fun' have something wrong with them.

So all those people who lie to their kids about Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny, The Tooth Fairy and Transubstantiation have a reason besides the fact that its fun? What on earth could that possibly be?


I think the distinction is that there's a good-hearted assumption -- though arguably misguided -- that the kid will get a lot of fun and happiness out of Santa and all that, that the world seems more magical, etc.

Lying to a kid because they think it's funny the kid will believe anything is different. It's less about making the kid happy and more about getting a cheap laugh from insulting the intelligence of a person who's too stupid or naive to realize they're doing it. It's for themselves, not for the child.
posted by Nattie at 6:18 AM on December 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


The thing about priming kids full of lies is that while they can shake the obvious ones, it leaves room behind for the lies they just can't shake to nestle and grow strong. It's not hard for a four year old to work out that the world is very very large, and there's no way Santa could move that fast. But the more abstract lies ("it'll all work out in the end," "there's an inevitable tally of everything you do") leave people with an ugly faith in the untestable: that they happen to have been lucky enough to be born into coincidentally the best country in Earth and the one true religion because important-looking people in costumes told them so at an early age.

People love to do weird crap to their kids. I knew a gal who didn't know what sex was until she was sixteen. Some eight year olds she was babysitting explained it to her. At age nineteen, she still didn't know what a clitoris was or that she was a proud owner of such. I've seen a bisexual, BDSM-involved parent suddenly revert to the Catholic teachings pounded in at an early age and oppose telling their son about condoms. They knew better, but that old training kicked in, causing the hoary irrational justifications ("Knowing about birth control will just encourage him to have sex!") to spew forth. Lies, early deep lies, are fantastic at overriding the capacity of reason even years later, like some kind of herpes eruption, long dormant, surfacing to spread copies of itself at a fortuitous time.

Sometimes I think parents don't keep kids in these flimsy intellectual bomb shelters for protection so much as it is a way to validate their own pitiful fears.
posted by adipocere at 6:38 AM on December 25, 2008 [4 favorites]


By all accounts I was a skeptical child... I can't recall any memories of actually believing in Santa, as far back as I can remember I regarded it as a silly fiction for other kids. When we went to church, I would mostly just sit there and wonder what was wrong with me that made me not buy any of it, and did all these people around me really believe all this stuff?

And yet...my oldest brother had us convinced for quite a while that if you pushed your belly button in hard enough, your legs would fall off. And oh yes, I believed.
posted by the bricabrac man at 6:46 AM on December 25, 2008 [5 favorites]


Being mad about all the lies we tell kids seems like being mad at giving baby food to infants. There are features of solid food that people are constitutionally unprepared to handle until they reach a certain age. Same thing substituting "adult life" for "solid food". Features like the inevitability of loss. Fragility. Existential meaninglessness. How sometimes people, even people you love a lot, lie to you. Or to themselves.

Of course ideally you will eventually backfill and come back around to teach your children those lessons too, so they learn from someone who loves them and supports them. But kids might not have the ontological equipment ready to bear the answer the first time it occurs to them to ask the question. If they ask how babies are made, yeah, tell them. If they ask why some mommies and daddies stop loving each other, maybe you handle that one a little differently.
posted by penduluum at 6:58 AM on December 25, 2008 [6 favorites]


I remember growing up, getting out of college, and all of a sudden having to learn all kinds of truths about the world that were never a part of my formal education.

I think you may have put "I remember growing up" at the wrong end of that sentence.
posted by Cyrano at 6:59 AM on December 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


I got the lie about the Tooth Fairy, but by instinct did not believe it. That didn't diminish the pleasure of finding a quarter under my pillow in the morning.

However, even as an under-10 child, I was more bothered by the fact that someone could get that close to me without waking me up.

My sibling used to taunt me with the truth, which was verifiable. Somehow, lies played a less prominent role in my childhood than truths.

All of this was replaced in my adult years by people who either couldn't tell the truth with kindness, or at all.

But now it is daylight and quiet and I wish everybody a blue sky in their hour of need. And of course, a cup of hot chocolate with widdy bitty marshamallows crowding the top.

::::runs off to the kitchen::::
posted by datawrangler at 7:06 AM on December 25, 2008


If they ask why some mommies and daddies stop loving each other, maybe you handle that one a little differently.

What do you propose would be a better answer than an honest exploration of relationship difficulties?
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 7:14 AM on December 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


Well, I remember very clearly the day I figured out Santa Claus wasn't real, put the question to Dad, and got the reluctant nod. That moment had a lot to do with making me the person I am today, and if you didn't like this essay you will probably not think that's a good thing, because it made me a lot like the Paul Graham. Probably nine times out of ten it will be fine and the kid will congratulate himself on taking a step toward the adult world, where he will be able to do the making-shit-up stuff and laughing at the innocence of his inferiors.

Then the tenth time you will get me. The fact that such a vast, universal, and above all pointless conspiracy was perpetrated generation after generation shocked my conscience. That moment had a lot with giving up the bigger lie of my Southern Baptist religious upbringing around the age of 15. I think it is safe to say I never really believed anything said to me by an authority figure after that. Some people would consider that a good thing, and it may be the source of certain talents that I developed, but others would be horrified at what an insufferable little smart aleck I became.

It was also a solid brick in the wall I was building against the idea of ever having kids of my own -- and if you think an adult won't keep an oath he swore at the age of 5, here I am at 44 still without kids largely because of a bunch of rotten shit that happened to me as a kid.

I think what is missing from the adult-child relationship, something Graham misses, is that lying to kids indicates a lack of respect for them as individuals. Which is worse really, to realize that the turkey didn't want to die but we're eating it anyway because we're humans and it's a turkey and that's the way the world works, or to realize possibly years later what a stupid little schmuck you were for swallowing such a line of bullshit and what creeps your parents were for hiding reality from you instead of letting you figure out how to deak with it yourself. Because they didn't want a scene at Thanksgiving.

So by all means, if you want your kids to be cute and helpless and compliant go ahead and tell them this kind of shit. Odds are that it will work out like you want and you'll get to repeat the same lies to your grandkids. But don't be too surprised if you get someone like me or Paul Graham instead.
posted by localroger at 7:18 AM on December 25, 2008 [12 favorites]


Aside from the typical explanation of "It's funny to subtly ridicule those inferior to us" and "We want to protect them from the harsh realities of the world", there's also the consideration that adults lie to children about the myth of Santa Claus et al because they, too, really really want to believe that this magic exists. Obviously by the time someone is rational, they will see through the deception of Santa Claus, but that doesn't mean the thought of someone like that existing isn't a nice thought.

I never believed in either of those, and I still chuckle at the concept of someone who will reward good behaviour with gifts and mock bad behaviour with coal. It seems fair. The world isn't fair. Perhaps, by lying to their children, adults are also trying to make this idealist myth last a little bit longer.

That said, in the unlikely event I have children of my own, I sincerely doubt I will perpetuate the myth. This is most likely because I wasn't brought up to believe in it, but I guess I also just don't see the point.
posted by Phire at 7:23 AM on December 25, 2008


What do you propose would be a better answer than an honest exploration of relationship difficulties?

What I'm saying is that it's possible that having an honest exploration of relationship difficulties with a child might actually be irresponsible, if the child doesn't have the framework in place to handle that exploration. And that that mental framework isn't something that a person is born with, or something that you can just sit down with a kid and make from whole cloth; there are stages of mental development that have to happen, and that happen according to a predictable chronology, same as fine motor skills and object permanence.

Sometimes part of the job of an adult (especially a parent) is determining when to not expose a child to something that might be harmful. There are cases in which the truth can be harmful, or at least not sufficiently harmless. Honey is great for adults; it kills babies, because they haven't built up the appropriate immunities. That's all I mean.
posted by penduluum at 7:29 AM on December 25, 2008


I had not known when I was very young that the Tooth Fairy might have been gay or I would not have accepted money from him, left under my pillow in MY BEDROOM!
posted by Postroad at 7:36 AM on December 25, 2008


Can you provide an example of a lie you would suggest telling children about relationship problems?
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 7:44 AM on December 25, 2008


So all those people who lie to their kids about Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny, The Tooth Fairy and Transubstantiation have a reason besides the fact that its fun? What on earth could that possibly be?

One reason is peer pressure. When my 5-year-old asked me if "Santa is in real life," I said no. She gets grief in kindergarten, and I get grief from grownups. It's worth it to me not to have lied to her. I hope she'll think it's worth it to her when she's old enough to decide.

As Nattie says, however, that's a separate issue from lying to kids for fun. There are adults who lie to other adults for fun, too. Those liars are jerks. I'm making a distinction here between telling stories for entertainment, and trying to deceive. Trying to deceive children is bad behavior. Whether it's for 'fun' or because the person doesn't feel able to adequately explain the truth is another distinction.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:45 AM on December 25, 2008


Can you provide an example of a lie you would suggest telling children about relationship problems?

I honestly can't. Maybe it was a bad example.
posted by penduluum at 8:13 AM on December 25, 2008


Or maybe there's a reason I'm not a parent yet.
posted by penduluum at 8:15 AM on December 25, 2008


When they figured out that the look-me-in-the-eye-and-say-that lie detector technique wasn't real, did they cry themselves to sleep because there's no such thing as telepathy?

You have dealt with children before, right? This actually works just fine. Try it sometime.
posted by odinsdream at 8:21 AM on December 25, 2008


So if you think Santa and the Easter Bunny are complicated, wait until he asks how his pending sibling got into Mommy's tummy.

Seriously, my sister never saw that one coming. Even her JD couldn't prepare her for that one.


Oh really. She never saw that one coming. Right. Who could?
posted by odinsdream at 8:28 AM on December 25, 2008 [4 favorites]


Some adults don't think of themselves as adults, if "adult" means something fundamentally different from being a kid. Others comfortably and naturally think of kids and adults as two different "species." I think the latter is more likely to lie to kids "because it's fun." For them, it's fun in the same way it's fun to pretend to throw a stick and watch a dog go chasing after nothing.

I'm not that kind of adult. I haven't made an effort to empathize with kids. It's just that I AM a kid. I'm a kid in the sense that I never reached a magical time when I thought, "Yup, I'm a grown up now." I kept waiting for it to happen. I ASSUMED it was going to happen. In my late 30s, I stopped waiting for it. Now, I'm pretty sure it will never happen. I'm not a particularly childish guy. I just feel a complete continuity between being five and being forty-three. I remember what it was like to be five. "Remember" isn't even the right word. If I close my eyes, that state of being five is still right there in my brain, all the fears and joys of it.

It's always odd to me when I hear grown ups say, "I don't like kids." I feel like, "What do you mean? You don't like yourself?" Then I think, "Oh yeah: to him, a kid is a different kind of being." I don't think kids and grown ups are different sorts of creatures, but I do think people like me and people who are distanced from childhood are. I doubt we will ever understand each other.

(I used to work with children. Quite often, a parent would be visiting my class and we'd see one of the kids do something cute or naughty. When that happened, the parent would usually roll their eyes or wink at me, as if to say, "Kids... what are you gonna do?" And I always felt like a fraud. I always felt like my zipper would come undone and they'd see the nine-year-old inside me.)

I can't lie to kids -- at least not comfortably -- because doing so would be like lying to my boss, my next door neighbor or my wife.

I wonder what makes some people like me and some people not like me? Maybe it has to do with memory. I have a sucky short-term memory but an awesome long-term one -- one that links events with emotions. I guess if you can't remember your childhood, or if you remember it in a detached way, you can't relate to kids. And if you can't relate, you can more easily lie.

It also probably has something to do with one's parents. If they expected you to "grow up," you probably did. Mine didn't. They valued play. They also valued their own lives and left me to myself most of the time. I had a sort of feral upbringing.

My dad held down a job and paid his bills, but he also liked stamp collecting and comic books. My mom liked to doodle and play practical jokes. So it probably also impacted me to see my parents being playful. If you grow up with adult role models who are always serious and sober, your mindset is likely to be different from mine. (I remember once hearing my mom say "fuck" and telling her "that's a bad word." She snapped at me, "I'm allowed to say any words I want.")

I didn't really grasp I was going to die till I was about 19.

It was more like 24 or 25 for me. Of course, I knew, in the intellectual sense, that I was going to die someday, but it was a purely abstract knowledge—devoid of context and meaning, like the disembodied names and dates I'd been forced to memorize in high school history.


This is another interesting difference in personality types. As a kid, I never saw death. All four of my grandparents were alive until I was an adult. (Maybe the fact that death was a complete mystery, rather than a nuts and bolts fact, had something to do with the way I turned out.) I didn't see an open-casket funeral until I was nearly forty, when my wife's dad died.

Yet even in nursery school, I was terrified of death. I was scared of dying myself. I was even more scared of my mom and dad dying. At one point, I got so neurotic about it -- freaking out every day -- that my mom lied to me and told me that she would never die.

I had a friend, Peter, who got a pair of new shoes. His mom told him to make sure he didn't get them wet or dirty. But Peter tripped and stumbled into a puddle, soaking them. This was when he and I were playing together, in a park next to a creek. As soon as he soaked his shoes, he said, "Oh well..." and jumped in the creek. I was stunned. But he said, "Hey, I'm already in trouble. I might as well have fun."

I still envy him. I envy that whole personality type. I'm not like that. I'm fretful. I'm like the young Woody Allen character in "Annie Hall" who stops doing his homework when he finds out that the universe is expanding.

If you have kids, you need to be sensitive to their personality types. Some kids are robust. A few fibs and revelations will roll of their backs. Others are more fragile.

My mom's biggest lie to me (though it may not have been a lie when she told it) was, "Don't worry: your dad and I will never get divorced." A few years later, they split up. Actually, they reconciled in the end, so, taken literally, my mom didn't lie at all. But she led me to believe that she and my dad would always be a couple. And for a while, they weren't.

Decades later, the idea of them splitting up doesn't phase me. It would be sad, of course, but we'd all get over it. But I still feel hurt when I think of that lie. I know my mom told it to me so that I wouldn't fret. But what really hurt wasn't them splitting up -- it was feeling betrayed by my mom. I don't think I ever fully trusted anyone's word after that.
posted by grumblebee at 8:32 AM on December 25, 2008 [24 favorites]


Or here you go: if mommy and daddy loved each other until they had a kid, and the economic pressure and lack of personal life slowly drove a wedge between them and they realized they couldn't live together anymore and they were too young and immature to be parents -- I would recommend not telling the kid that. Pick any lie, really, to answer the question of "why don't mommy and daddy love each other anymore?" If daddy and mommy start to fight a lot because daddy had an affair and mommy found out, and the kid asks "why do mommy and daddy fight so much?", I would suggest coming up with something other than the truth. "We love each other but sometimes we're stressed out." "Daddy is annoyed at something that has nothing to do with you, my child." Even that one rarely works, because in the kid's mind there is nothing in the world that doesn't have to do with him/her.

My cousin asked me when he was 6 whether his parents used to talk about him a lot before he was born. Is that kid ready to handle the adult world? If you tell him "your birth made it hard for mommy and daddy to get along, and mommy resents getting off her career path, and daddy misses how things used to be," do you think he'll take it well? Do you agree that there are circumstances that children are not equipped for?

I don't have a good lie ready to give out. It's complicated. Depends on the situation. That's the whole issue.
posted by penduluum at 8:34 AM on December 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


Geez people, some of you need to lighten up. When done right the Santa "lie" is a harmless and charming fantasy. I was sad to let it go, when some nasty older kids told me the truth at age 6, and I enjoyed preserving the fiction when my sister was little. She and I enjoyed her daughter enjoying it when she was small. No one of us was super traumatized during the truth telling, and none of us lost respect for our parents for creating and abetting the fantasy. I still like fairy tales, and fantasy, and science fiction, and fiction of all kinds, and I tell white lies on occasion, when they need telling that way, and I tell the absolute and honest truth, as well (sometimes to the detriment of my career), when the unvarnished truth is what is needed. I try to have the good judgement, as an adult, to figure out what is appropriate for what circumstance.
posted by gudrun at 8:39 AM on December 25, 2008 [6 favorites]


I think what is missing from the adult-child relationship, something Graham misses, is that lying to kids indicates a lack of respect for them as individuals.

I think there should be a happy medium when it comes to adults explaining how the world works to children.

But sometimes adults were plain disrespectful how they lied to us as kids, they completely insulted our intelligence. I remember my mother sending me to several "tea parties". As much as a tomboy I was, I enjoyed them pretty much. You got to go to old spooky mansions, dress up, listen to interesting history about tea parties, and they fed us a lot of food. However there was one fucked thing about these parties, the "tea" they served us wasn't tea! Never! I've been to several of them, and the adults served us everything from pepsi cola to "red" kool-aide, and told us it was TEA! We were drinking these soft drinks from nice china and even put sugar cubes in them.

Why did they refuse to give us real tea? I don't know, maybe it was a risk-managment thing, they didn't want us to get burnt by hot tea. But, that's not a good excuse, they could've served us ice tea. But us kids were pissed for two reasons, the adults got us all excited about tea and was served soda or punch instead...and the fact that the adults thought we were so stupid that we would believe them!
posted by sixcolors at 8:51 AM on December 25, 2008


"Daddy is annoyed at something that has nothing to do with you, my child."

This sort of answer deeply troubled me as a kid, because it meant that the grownups knew exactly what was going on but weren't going to tell me. Which meant my mind was free to wonder into all sorts of scary places: Daddy is annoyed because he has cancer? Daddy is annoyed because he lost his job and we're going to have to move? Daddy is annoyed because mommy kissed someone else?
posted by grumblebee at 8:55 AM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Another perspective: I am fairly on in years and have a number of friends also up there. I discovered that older folks tend to get morose, despondent, cynical, jaundiced (mentally and emotionally), and take a rather dim view of things. Now this could be (1) they have been around long enough to see the truth (2) age does this as they approach death. Would you want your grandparents, say, to tell "their truths" to your very young child?

There are outright lies and then there are some rather amusing innocent untruths we give to our kids: No. That man is not really your father...or, Santa comes down the Chimney and look at what he left for you? Kids quickly outgrow 2 of the 3 myths we pass on: tooth fairy and santa. The 3rd: god, well some do and some cling to this meme.
posted by Postroad at 9:03 AM on December 25, 2008


It's definitely not a good answer, but "Daddy is annoyed at something that has everything to do with you. It might be unfair, though, and it might not be something you can change; Daddies can be unfair and irrational too." isn't especially good either. I don't know the answer.
posted by penduluum at 9:06 AM on December 25, 2008


One reason is peer pressure. When my 5-year-old asked me if "Santa is in real life," I said no. She gets grief in kindergarten, and I get grief from grownups.

This sounds like you lie to your kids because its convenient. I believe my parents did this to me as well -- because it was usually less hassle than telling the truth. I still remember losing respect for them when I realized they did this.

Which isn't to say that I didn't do it myself. I'm not pointing the finger here. Being a parent is hard, and the decisions we make aren't always clear cut.

Pick any lie, really, to answer the question of "why don't mommy and daddy love each other anymore?

Yeah, I'd go along with this one too. There's probably never a good age to tell your kids that their other parent no longer wants to raise them because they'd rather be fucking some low-rent lothario.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:09 AM on December 25, 2008


Lies We Tell Kids? If this were a list instead of an essay it would be infinitely long.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:19 AM on December 25, 2008


I think the distinction is that there's a good-hearted assumption -- though arguably misguided -- that the kid will get a lot of fun and happiness out of Santa and all that, that the world seems more magical, etc.

It seems like I'm in the vast minority, but (despite my heartbreak when I found out the truth), I genuinely believe that believing in Santa Claus as a kid--and I believed until I was 10--enriched my childhood and it imbibed it, and the season, with a real sense of warmth and magic that I don't believe I would have experienced in any other way. My father died of emphysema when I was eight, so maybe I hung on to the belief a little longer than I otherwise would have, but it helped to make my life feel warm and safe at a time when, as a cynical adult, it likely would not have.

Incidentally, I never asked whether Santa was real or not. I just believed, and then I didn't. Would things have been different if I asked? Maybe, but I didn't want to--I liked my sparkly, magical, false beliefs. They made me happy, made me feel good, and I don't blame my mother for not shattering those beliefs. As an adult, I don't go around unseating the religious beliefs of others, even if I don't believe in them. If it makes people feel good to believe in God, who am I to disagree with them?
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:22 AM on December 25, 2008 [5 favorites]


If mommy and daddy loved each other until they had a kid, and the economic pressure and lack of personal life slowly drove a wedge between them and they realized they couldn't live together anymore and they were too young and immature to be parents -- I would recommend not telling the kid that. Pick any lie, really, to answer the question of "why don't mommy and daddy love each other anymore?" If daddy and mommy start to fight a lot because daddy had an affair and mommy found out, and the kid asks "why do mommy and daddy fight so much?", I would suggest coming up with something other than the truth.

Come on. Being honest with children doesn't necessarily mean divulging every private, overly complex detail. If an adult peer asked why I was breaking up with someone, I wouldn't go into this unseemly amount of TMI intimate detail either because it's nobody's business. That doesn't mean that the alternative is to lie; it's to provide an honest but discreet answer.

So, why are Mommy and Daddy fighting? "We're having a disagreement about grown-up stuff and are angry at each other, and when people get angry, they have arguments sometimes, like you and your friends."

Adults seem to react to kids' "difficult" questions either by hyperventilating and clamming up or telling them way, way more than they want or need to know at that age/juncture. Your average four-year-old, when asking where babies come from, will often be totally satisfied with "They grow in a special place in a woman's belly" for the moment and not require the full PowerPoint presentation until a couple of years later -- unless the family is actually having a new baby or the kid happens to be one of those tiny P.I.s with 14 follow-up questions on every topic. Most good parents seem to learn the knack of answering a question truthfully, matter-of-factly, and briefly.
posted by FelliniBlank at 9:46 AM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm really, really glad my parents decided to encourage magical beliefs in me when I was a kid. Because I can't imagine how sad it would be if, upon ambushing my father while wearing cardboard armor and waving a yardstick, he would have simply looked at me and said stoically, "Your mother and I want you to know the truth - that is not actually dragon-scale armor and the mighty sword Excalibur. Stop this silliness."

I was so. completely. excited. about Santa Claus. I knew my folks were in on it with him, otherwise - how would he so totally know exactly what I wanted? I couldn't wait to grow up and learn how to hang out with him... I loved every second of it and I'm grateful to my folks for playing along.

God, how sad, to live in a world without make-believe, without fantasy, without the adventures that children invent.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 9:54 AM on December 25, 2008 [18 favorites]


Come on. Being honest with children doesn't necessarily mean divulging every private, overly complex detail.

Yeah, I think the divorce thing has less to do with honesty and more to do with specificity.

I mean, "Sometimes two people can't get along," that's perfectly true, it's just sort of general. But as a general truth, it's a lot less disruptive than "Sometimes two people can't get along because one of them is fucking the babysitter."
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:00 AM on December 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


I don't think these things are mutually exclusive, Baby_Balrog. I never bounced around the living room with a paper cut out sword brandishing at invisible monsters, and never any other variation on these sorts of re-enactments. I really liked reading fantasy books, and drawing, and making up my own characters and their own kingdoms though. I think it's remiss to say that the fantasy life of a child would be lessened without Santa Claus. There's a difference between embracing fantasy and getting lost in the magic, and being lied to. I don't think knowing perfectly that Middle Earth didn't exist made it any less magical.
posted by Phire at 10:11 AM on December 25, 2008 [3 favorites]


God, how sad, to live in a world without make-believe, without fantasy, without the adventures that children invent.

Seconding Phire: I never believed in Santa or the Easter Bunny, but my childhood was anything but bereft of fantasy. I fantasized so much that both the kids and grownups in my life got sick of it. I rarely played board games or sports. For me, playing meant pretending to be an astronaut, a monster, a wizard or a cave man. That's what I did every recess, every day after school, every weekend. I made up whole fantasy worlds and knew everything about people and creatures who lived in them.

I didn't for a second believe these worlds were real. It didn't matter that they weren't real. I understood that imaginative worlds had their own sort of reality.

I can trace my imaginative life to a great gift my father gave me: reading to me. He read me stories every night, from almost the time I was born to when I was "too old" to be read to (he was still reading to me when I was ten and could read for myself). He read me children's books but also H.G. Wells and Jules Vern novels. He never tried to convince me that the stories were true. My understanding that they were fiction didn't kill a bit of the magic.

You can instill a life of magic and make-believe in kids without lying to them.
posted by grumblebee at 10:36 AM on December 25, 2008 [8 favorites]


I vaguely remember, around age 10, me and my friend Chris discussing the idea that Santa Claus might possibly be just a crazy rich guy, like Batman.
posted by jonmc at 10:42 AM on December 25, 2008 [4 favorites]


I got variations of those lies. The adults who lied to me , though, weren't suburban middle-class folk, but were poor, frightened of the world outside the ghetto and in a couple of cases, not all there. And we were disabused from the notion of Santa Claus from the get-go. Seriously.

About sex and drugs, I got an explanation of sorts about what they were and what would happen if you used bad judgment, but the lie really was given to me about men, i.e. men are untrustworthy beasts who would use sex and drugs to hurt you, put something over on you and use you. I don't think even the vast majority of men in my admittedly awful neighborhood growing up were such predators. The other lie was that I would be too emotionally weak to discern anyone's motives and would fall for the first player to tell me he loved me or the first person who offered me a bump, because women are silly like that, right? I see that the point was to protect me from a future as a pregnant crackhouse whore, but still...

I was also told that if I didn't believe in Jesus as the son of God and the Bible as a divine, infallible book with the only correct method of living parsed out within, then I was DOOMED! to burning in hell fire. I see that these people who told me this believed it themselves and wanted to keep me from such fires, but it occurred to me at 10 that if Santa and the Easter Bunny weren't real (as Auntie and Pastor T emphatically reminded us every year), then it was possible that none of that Jesus stuff was real either. It seemed prudent to keep my mouth shut about my suspicions, though.

I'll refrain from going into the lies I was told about how my life would be a horror of struggle by virtue of being a not-exactly-white woman in the white man's world. The premise that it's solely a white man's world is a big lie that too many still believe, I think. But again, I understand that the people who told me certain things felt that they were protecting me from the pain that they were sure was heading towards me. Suffice it to say that, at least for me, the race thing and the woman thing haven't held me back nearly as much as living as though those lies were true. I'm glad I'm wising up while I'm still relatively young.
posted by droplet at 10:46 AM on December 25, 2008 [5 favorites]


I always felt that telling children about santa claus or whatever was less about adults tricking children about the real world and more about adults trying to enter the world of children.
posted by milarepa at 11:07 AM on December 25, 2008 [3 favorites]


I plan on telling my kids about Santa and the Easter Bunny. I also plan on telling them about Zeus, Hera, Athena, Apollo, Hermes, Poseidon, Perseus, Odysseus, Jesus, Mohammad, Moses, Jehovah, Shiva, Vishnu, Zoroaster, Sam Spade, and Superman.

But I'm not going to pretend that any of them are real.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:19 AM on December 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


I plan on telling my kids about Santa and the Easter Bunny. I also plan on telling them about Zeus, Hera, Athena, Apollo, Hermes, Poseidon, Perseus, Odysseus, Jesus, Mohammad, Moses, Jehovah, Shiva, Vishnu, Zoroaster, Sam Spade, and Superman.

What about Elvis?
posted by jonmc at 11:25 AM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Our daughter is two and half, and we have decided not to do the Santa Claus thing with her because I can't stand lying to her. (Truth is a huge value for me--the kid's name even means truth.) I also think it's a good thing for her to know who gave her her gifts, so she can thank them. I didn't realize until a few weeks ago just how huge Santa is. I mean, I know most kids grow up believing in Santa Claus, but I didn't realize that well-meaning people would ask my daughter about him. "Are you looking forward to Santa Claus? Have you told Santa what you want?" Since she doesn't watch any TV except for Sesame Street and Super Why, and since we never mention Santa Claus, she just looks at them blankly, no idea what they are talking about. It's actually kind of great to see a toddler looking at an adult like they are crazy when Santa comes up.

The best moment was when Aletheia was out shopping with her grandmother yesterday, and the cashier, full of Christmas cheer and big smiles, leans over and says "Is Santa Claus coming to your house tonight?" She shook her head and said "nope" with such confidence and nonchalance that the lady was left groping for a response and coming up blank.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 11:27 AM on December 25, 2008 [10 favorites]


What about Elvis?

Oh hell yeah. Also, Same Cooke, Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin, Joey Ramone, Mick Jagger, Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Michael Stipe, and Janis Joplin.

But not Handsome Dick Manitoba. That one will have to wait until you meet them, jonmc.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:39 AM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


You can instill a life of magic and make-believe in kids without lying to them.

But what about kids like me, who didn't necessarily believe because adults lied to them? I don't just mean Santa Claus. At around 9 I was convinced, through some book I read, that dragons existed and loved jelly beans. People seem to think that it's the false belief in Santa or the Easter Bunny that's somehow wrong. But childhood's the only time and place outside of organized religion where false beliefs are okay. And you know what? I think it really is okay, if it reassures kids and makes them happy and brings them joy or helps them explore their imagination or whatever. Truth is important to me, but happiness is also important.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:45 AM on December 25, 2008


Oh, BTW, in all likelihood there are kids reading this - both the article and the comments here.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 11:50 AM on December 25, 2008


I always admired a friend of mine who who would make up elaborate fantastical lies for his daughter about why the sky was blue...but then I had a kid and I could never lie about real stuff. I always had to tell her the scientific truth.

On the other hand, we perpetuated the Santa/Easter Bunny/Tooth Fairy myth for years and it was great fun for the whole family. There was no trauma when my daughter recognized Santa's handwriting as Dad's ill-disguised penmanship. She was old enough.

Regarding drugs, she, a teen, did not lie to me about having tried pot and booze. I lied to my parents, although they, of course, knew. I am proud of her. She is, I hope, careful enough - she has been by nature been so since she was a child.

Sex: explicit Unitarian sex ed was the best ever, when she was in sixth grade.

Here is the troubling one: if you are as cynical about man's fate as I am, when is it a good time to tell your child the world is fucked?

And regarding Paul Graham: never heard of the guy, but his prose is pretty flatulent.
posted by kozad at 11:53 AM on December 25, 2008



God, how sad, to live in a world without make-believe, without fantasy, without the adventures that children invent.


Huh? I may have never believed in Santa Claus, but I had (have) an incredibly rich fantasy life (perhaps too rich!). The two things are not at all mutually exclusive.
posted by the bricabrac man at 11:58 AM on December 25, 2008


Wait a minute...you're going to tell your kids that jesus and mohammad are fictional characters? Huh.
posted by the bricabrac man at 12:02 PM on December 25, 2008


Wow. A lot of you are totally missing the point.

Being a parent--being a *good* parent--is a lot about Making The Rules and Holding The Line. The holidays and the character myths are a way to enjoyably break from your responsibilities within reasonable constraints.

For instance: It's not a good idea to have chocolate and candy for breakfast, however delightful that might be. Kids? They'd totally eat that stuff for breakfast if they could. Every day. As the parent you have to be the one to say, no, we have cereal/oatmeal/whatever for breakfast. Sorry, no candy for breakfast. You have to make sure they get their veggies and their vitamins. You have to make sure that you hit *all* the responsibilities: allocating your money for utilities, rent, retirement, clothes, whatever, instead of, hey, all toys all the time! That would be a lot funner, but shit, sorry kids, we've got to keep a roof over our head, and salt away a little bit so that you will be able to go to college ("Mommy, what's college?") and so that the kids don't have to pay for the retirement home ("Mommy, what's a retirement home?").

But you know, life needs some of that fun stuff. It's totally awesome to occasionally be able to eat five ounces of chocolate before breakfast. It's totally awesome to occasionally get extravagant presents. You want to give those experiences to your kids--but you don't want to get into a situation where the kid expects it or you need to negotiate all the time about what's possible and permissible.

The beauty of Christmas and Easter for a parent is that there are fixed times and places for those things. Santa and the Easter Bunny mean that *those guys* are bringing the presents and candy, and so your kids aren't going to say, "Why can't we have chocolate for breakfast this morning? We did last Sunday, why not today?"

For those who think this is abdicating responsibility, let me just say that there are a lot of situations where being a good parent requires you to support magical thinking, enthusiastically display otherwise poorly-supported optimism and confidence, and yes, sometimes lie outright. Sometimes consideration of your kid's psychology and simple kindness is more important than the naked truth. Not unlike pretty much every relationship, for that matter.
posted by Sublimity at 12:04 PM on December 25, 2008 [12 favorites]


I wonder how much of the denial that most people spend their lives frantically trying to keep intact is the result of discovering how much of the world we hide from them as children.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:04 PM on December 25, 2008


Going back to read that essay---God, it's so flamingly obvious that man has no children of his own.

Once upon a time a heard a quote along the lines of, "Before I had children, I had six theories of childrearing. Now I have six children and no theories of childrearing." A quick google turns up no attribution. Nevertheless I think someone ought to tell Mr. Graham that he'd likely have a much different point of view if he, you know, had some actual experience.
posted by Sublimity at 12:12 PM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Let me just chime in with all the others who say that refusal to indoctrinate your kids into the cultural mythology of the holidays has nothing whatsoever to do with whether your kids can have an active fantasy life. There's still all kinds of room for fairy tales and make-believe and "let's pretend" with telling a kid that this actual tangible present right here that you unwrapped yourself was delivered by a jolly old elf in the North Pole and expecting them to believe it. Play is one thing, artifice is another. We have a lot of fun with the first and shy away from the second.

And, Sublimity, it really is possible to say "this change in the rules applies only at Christmas" without invoking the big SC or hopelessly negating parental authority.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 12:17 PM on December 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


I decided at one point that I wouldn't lie to my daughter on principle, but this resolution ended shortly after she asked me (at the age of four or five) whether the earth would last forever & I replied that no, eventually the sun would get very big and burn it up.
posted by stinkycheese at 12:25 PM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Wait a minute...you're going to tell your kids that jesus and mohammad are fictional characters? Huh.

No, I'd represent them as historical figures. Same as George Washington and Eli Whitney.
posted by Afroblanco at 12:29 PM on December 25, 2008


Can you provide an example of a lie you would suggest telling children about relationship problem?

To avoid: "Mommy, why is Daddy living with another woman now?" "Well, she has big tits and takes it up the ass."

Kids don't want to hear about Daddy's midlife crisis, it won't do 'em any good. A false or at least incomplete explanation like "Sometimes people just grow apart" is much better.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:59 PM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


We always talked about Santa and the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny (I guess - I don't really remember thinking about him/her), and my mom acted more or less like they were real, and we acted more or less like we believed in them. But we all knew the whole time that it was a gag, a story. We knew mom knew, mom knew we knew she knew, and so forth. And it was great, because we got to enjoy the fantasies, and the magic, but there was no terrible betrayal involved.

The sticky part came when I realized that God wasn't just another game like that, that some people REALLY BELIEVED IT. I thought God had no basis in fact but some people used it as a framework for good stories that can teach you lessons, it just happened to be a story we didn't get into at my house (see: Bunny, Easter).

I mean, I used to see images of Santa and Jesus, sitting on a sort of mezzanine of clouds over planet earth, discussing the merits of humanity. Santa was going to bring presents to those who had been nice and Jesus, that hard bastard, was going to send everyone else to HELL.

But I didn't think it was real.

Anyway, my son is a year and a half, and we talk about Santa, and he can say "ho ho ho", but I try to walk the line my mom walked - talking about it but somehow getting across the point where it is a game we are playing. I have no idea if it is working. Ask me in ten years or so.
posted by dirtdirt at 1:07 PM on December 25, 2008


Marisa Stole the Precious Thing sez,

"Guess what? In the end, it turns out the Catholic church has been trying to keep people from knowing that Jesus had children, and Sophie Neveu is Jesus' last living relative."


No, that was Bethany Sloan. One or the other, perhaps both of us have been DECIEVED!
posted by cookie-k at 1:15 PM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


I never believed in Santa Claus.

On the other hand, I was certain that when the Rapture came all the people I knew were going to be taken and I'd be left alone to have terrible things happen to me. I fully understood I wasn't good enough to be Caught Up.

I furiously studied manuals for camping, hoarded canned goods, and had a diver's knife under my pillow in preparation for the Apocalypse. I was the littlest survivalist! I panicked at every lunar eclipse (and the moon shall be as blood, you know) and considered carefully how I would inevitably be martyred when I refused to take the Mark of the Beast.

Perhaps in comparison with rains of blood, evil world governments and the threat of eternal damnation, the idea of some corpulent freak in a red suit giving me cheap plastic junk was just too boring to take hold.
posted by winna at 1:27 PM on December 25, 2008 [5 favorites]


we've never lied to our children about santa and all that stuff because their father and i are from different gifting traditions. we don't have easter bunny rituals in Puerto Rico and Three Kings' Day is bigger than Xmas.

oh, and we decided that as ex-catholics we'd raise our kids as atheist.

both sets of grandparents have gone into conniptions about this --especially my mother who once had us say grace and went on a "god" tangent. once she was done my oldest, who was then 3 year old, turns to me and asks, "who's god and why is she thanking him? i thought you made the food."

that's why when the following happened yesterday i had to laugh:

my little one (8yrs) : is santa really there (at Sandwich Islands per NORAD Santa tracking site).

me : he is if you want to believe it.

my son : yay!

sometimes there's just not enough truth to take away the magic out of a lie.
posted by liza at 1:33 PM on December 25, 2008 [10 favorites]


As a data point, my parents were very good at not lying to me about anything but they still told me about Santa Claus. I think it's fine, just a game that adults and kids play that's entertaining and charming. No one really takes it that seriously or, really, is so destroyed by it when they find out.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:39 PM on December 25, 2008


liza told her son: he is if you want to believe it

And there is a vast gulf between that very clever, truthful, and playful answer and the much deeper lie of a simple "yes."
posted by localroger at 1:44 PM on December 25, 2008 [3 favorites]


There's still all kinds of room for fairy tales and make-believe and "let's pretend" with telling a kid that this actual tangible present right here that you unwrapped yourself was delivered by a jolly old elf in the North Pole and expecting them to believe it. Play is one thing, artifice is another. We have a lot of fun with the first and shy away from the second.

I guess what I'm saying is that the "lie" of Santa Claus is a lot more complex than simple artifice, and for some kids, actually believing in Santa Claus is enriching rather than damaging. Maybe I'm just a little defensive because I was a believer, and I'm not particularly ashamed that I was, either. I'm sensing an undertone of condescension here surrounding children who genuinely believe in whatever fantasies are being presented to them (by their parents and society) as well as around parents who choose to perpetuate childhood myths--a sort of smarmy Well, I never believed in Santa Claus and We teach our children the truth, not that delusional gobledegook.

So maybe your kids will grow up with active fantasy lives without Santa. But that doesn't necessarily mean that believing--really believing--in Santa will be damaging to them, either. Once I got into my initial shock that Santa wasn't really real, I was easily able to understand why the Santa myth exists. It's fun for adults. It's fun for kids. It's not true, but all grown ups get to a point where they know it and it still, nevertheless, feels good for them to talk about it. What reason is there to feel bitter about something that so clearly brings joy to people? As a kid, I felt much more confused about, say, proselytized religious beliefs that people actually held than about a culturally perpetuated myth that people don't believe truly, but continue because it's tradition, because it feels good.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:49 PM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


We make shit up and spread it around it because humankind cannot stand very much reality. Those who proudly imagine they can (and do, and are therefore entitled to instruct and correct others) are lying to themselves.
posted by jfuller at 2:39 PM on December 25, 2008 [4 favorites]


...and the elaborate lies and mythology we will have to create.

? lies are not the same as mythology.

This is reminding me of that planet Douglas Adams created where everyone reads and there are thousands of books and it seems like it will be perfect for Arthur Dent in every way, until he discovers that every book is exactly 1000 pages long and just ends when it reaches the allotted length, since that's perfectly sensible. Not understanding mythologies, fictions and fantasies is like not understanding jokes or songs. What's the point of a joke? It isn't really factually accurate, you know. Why would you present your kid with a completely false tale of a nonexistent chicken crossing a road without a logical goal in mind??!
posted by mdn at 3:09 PM on December 25, 2008 [9 favorites]


It's amazing how much of what the essayist describes is going on right in this thread.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:43 PM on December 25, 2008


"Everybody lies."

Dr. Gregory House
posted by bwg at 3:45 PM on December 25, 2008


Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.
posted by gudrun at 3:51 PM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


One reason is peer pressure. When my 5-year-old asked me if "Santa is in real life," I said no. She gets grief in kindergarten, and I get grief from grownups.

This sounds like you lie to your kids because its convenient.


I assume you're using 'you' in the general sense, rather than the specific one (meaning me), because I just told you I don't lie to my kids.


It's not a good idea to have chocolate and candy for breakfast, however delightful that might be. Kids? They'd totally eat that stuff for breakfast if they could. Every day. As the parent you have to be the one to say, no, we have cereal/oatmeal/whatever for breakfast.

Sublimity, there is no rational reason that chocolate is OK as dessert for supper, but not OK as any part of breakfast. In fact, my in-laws in Beijing routinely eat a kind of hot-dog bun filled with chocolate at breakfast. They don't have Santa to give them a break from enforcing rules, though. They have a different set.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:10 PM on December 25, 2008


Why do we create the idea of Santa Clause for kids? Because it's a hell of a lot of fun for everyone involved, kids and adults alike. Maybe I myself am (or was) just too willing to believe in magic, but I held onto my belief in Santa Clause for way too long, until my parents just had my sister gently break it to me that he wasn't real. I never even considered resenting my parents for "lying" to me about it. I just wished the world could continue on as a place where that magic could conceivably exist in my mind for a little while longer. I was growing older. I couldn't do it anymore. I got that. But I also understood that letting me believe in Santa as a kid had no ill-will of any kind behind it at all. It was just something that I could only enjoy when I was young enough to believe it. I'd love to be able to do that now.

On the other hand, there's a new fad out there around Christmastime called the "Elf on the Shelf," where you buy this way-too-expensive elf figurine and tell your kids that he's the elf that watches to see which kids are being naughty and which kids are being nice, and then reports back to Santa each night. The idea is that the presence of the elf makes the kdis act extra good throughout the holidays.

That's fucked up. There's a line to me between instilling a sense of fantasy and wonder and instilling a sense of big-brother paranoia, and this thing crosses that line with glee, for the sake of manipulating the children's naivete for the parents' convenience.

I didn't know who Paul Graham was before I posted this, and not being a hacker, I don't have much of an opinion about him one way or another now, except that I like his idea that, yes, we will lie to our kids, and that's not necessarily bad all the time, but we should at the very least respect them enough to know why we're lying to them when we do it.
posted by Navelgazer at 5:30 PM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


On the other hand, there's a new fad out there around Christmastime called the "Elf on the Shelf," where you buy this way-too-expensive elf figurine and tell your kids that he's the elf that watches to see which kids are being naughty and which kids are being nice, and then reports back to Santa each night. The idea is that the presence of the elf makes the kdis act extra good throughout the holidays.

That's fucked up.


I hadn't heard of this before you brought it up. But thinking back to me as a kid, I probably would have snuck up on the elf, and then turned it facing the wall or covered it with a towel. What a convenient way to circumvent what used to be Santa's omniscience!
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:34 PM on December 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


my parents were very good at not lying to me about anything

You poor deprived person, you never got to experience the joy of both of your parents repeatedly telling you that you were not a seven year old child but actually a 36 year old midget? 33 years later they still laugh about that. Of course I don't remember if the midget thing came before being told that I wasn't born but hatched from an egg or after. Of course there was the third version of how I came to reside with the Mc family, that being that I was a "Blue Light Special" @ K-Mart and they were all out of good boys so they ended up with me. I am not making this up, these are the responses I got to the standard "where did I come from" type questions. And people wonder why I have such a "different" sense of humor.
posted by MikeMc at 6:07 PM on December 25, 2008 [5 favorites]


Of course I don't remember if the midget thing came before being told that I wasn't born but hatched from an egg or after. Of course there was the third version of how I came to reside with the Mc family, that being that I was a "Blue Light Special" @ K-Mart and they were all out of good boys so they ended up with me.

That does make the "funny" lie fed to me - that I was raised by wild dogs, and my parents found me begging for food behind McDonald's - seem a tad gentler.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:11 PM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


I thing I know is that the Santa/Tooth Fairy type myths is that they created a tolerance for ambiguity for me, the tension of believing/not-believing that was in my head for a lot of my childhood, from the enjoyment of belief vs. the appeals of reason, to the wrongness of lying vs. the pleasures of this falsehood, to the curiosity as to why some would lie for a reason that gives them no obvious benefit. I never felt betrayed or anger when I found out, and helped to maintain the fiction for myself, a little.

This tolerance of ambiguity certainly hasn't harmed me, and I believe has actually helped. It may be that I was naturally inclined that way in general, and that's why I didn't feel wronged, but I doubt that.
posted by Snyder at 6:29 PM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


That does make the "funny" lie fed to me - that I was raised by wild dogs, and my parents found me begging for food behind McDonald's - seem a tad gentler.

Say, that wolf story isn't too shabby... Unfortunately my older kid is seventeen (and the cheapskate probably is begging for food behind McDonald's) and the seven year old is Autistic and wouldn't have a clue what I'm talking about. Maybe I'll try and use that one on my four year old nephew.
posted by MikeMc at 6:52 PM on December 25, 2008


People seem to think that it's the false belief in Santa or the Easter Bunny that's somehow wrong. But childhood's the only time and place outside of organized religion where false beliefs are okay. And you know what? I think it really is okay, if it reassures kids and makes them happy and brings them joy or helps them explore their imagination or whatever. Truth is important to me, but happiness is also important.

For the last goddamn time, no they don't. They think that perpetuating a lie is what's wrong, no matter what the lie is. Fantasy is absolutely fine when treated as such.
posted by odinsdream at 7:11 PM on December 25, 2008


Fantasy is absolutely fine when treated as such.

This is what I'm disagreeing with; I firmly believe that it's okay for children to treat fantasy as real, and that doing so can enrich their lives, the same way the belief in religion can enrich the lives of adults, regardless of whether it's logical, or correct, or true.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:30 PM on December 25, 2008


Of course there was the third version of how I came to reside with the Mc family, that being that I was a "Blue Light Special" @ K-Mart and they were all out of good boys so they ended up with me.

I swear to God, Santa, Elvis and the Keebler Elves that I got this exact same joking response as a child. Word for word. Weird.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:37 PM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Maybe I'll try and use that one on my four year old nephew.

Stray dogs, though - not wolves. Wolves would have been cool. I was raised by stray dogs. On the plus side of that story, it did make me reluctant to go near fast food, lest it bring back memories of sleeping in storm drains.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 7:38 PM on December 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


liza told her son: he is if you want to believe it

And there is a vast gulf between that very clever, truthful,


Well - it isn't true. Whether or not you believe, Santa doesn't in fact exist. But I loved the answer anyway...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:34 PM on December 25, 2008


I always promised myself I wouldn't lie to my daughter - about anything. So she knows what a prostitute is and that I don't know whether there's a god or not.

But when she was less than a year, I read a great passage in Terry Pratchett's Hogfather, which I'll likely slaughter in the paraphrase, that we tell kids the lies we wish were true, like Santa Claus, justice and true love. It was so remarkably cynical and struck me as emotionally true that I did the whole Santa/Easter Bunny thing (which is even weirder in an agnostic house). Until Judy Blume ruined in for us in Super Fudge.

We lie to ourselves every single day to make the world tolerable - from optimism to the social contract that keeps society intact. Why on earth wouldn't we afford kids the same mental luxury?
posted by Gucky at 10:20 PM on December 25, 2008


"In human relationships, kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths."
posted by matthewr at 11:52 PM on December 25, 2008


Navelgazer writes "On the other hand, there's a new fad out there around Christmastime called the 'Elf on the Shelf,' where you buy this way-too-expensive elf figurine and tell your kids that he's the elf that watches to see which kids are being naughty and which kids are being nice, and then reports back to Santa each night."

This elf, are his features modeled on Abu Gonzales?

Or John Yoo?
posted by orthogonality at 12:00 AM on December 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


Lots of kids, including my daughter, are scared of Santa if they haven't been indoctrinated before seeing him. Maybe there's a reason.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:21 AM on December 26, 2008


It never occurred to Graham that the revelation of no-Santa is actually the point of the whole thing? That when kids turn 9 or 10, it's time for them to do some pretty important growing up vis-a-vis the whole "the world is a perfect, safe place for you," and that the death of Santa/Easter Bunny serves as a catalyst? That this moment, when kids gain that knowledge, is a vital part of recognizing a number of pretty significant truths that adults are required to gloss over until then (e.g. teachers aren't all-knowing; the bullies at school might not end up homeless and alone but actually insanely wealthy and successful; not everybody in the world loves you as much as your parents, &c.)? That seems like a pretty good way of letting them know: "Son, there's no Santa Claus. Take a couple of years to figure out the broader significance of that," vs. "Son, you're going to die some day. Let me pour you a gin and tonic and have that sink in for a minute."
posted by one_bean at 7:45 AM on December 26, 2008


I was a pretty existentialist child. At around age four, some adult or another asked me if I believed in Santa. I considered it carefully and responded "I'm going to believe in Santa until I'm 9. Then I'm not going to believe anymore." My mother was pretty astounded that she'd managed to raise a child who by the ripe old age of four recognized belief as a choice. She wasn't really sure what to do with me, but she managed ok.

On the other hand, my father was a fundamentalist Christian who felt that telling me about Santa would invalidate Jesus. And oh boy, did he tell me about Jesus! I remember coming home (my parents were divorced. OBVS.) and crying to my mom because my father had just spent half an hour telling me that she was going to hell, and if I wanted to go to heaven, I would be with Jesus, but NOT my mom. I was six! To tell me that ANYTHING was more important than MY MOM was devastating. I remember feeling lost and helpless unsure of the meaning of such a cruel world. It seems like winnie and I had similar childhoods - I was constantly waiting for The Rapture and anytime my father didn't answer the phone, I worried that he had Been Taken and I was Left Behind. In seventh grade, we had to talk about our greatest fears for something or other, and mine was The Great Tribulation where all of the unfaithful would be tortured by giant insects and whatnot.

My parents were also divided on the "Where did I come from?" front. My mother was very matter of fact about sex and how babies came into the world and all of that. My father, like some of the others in this thread, really did try to tell me that I was a blue light special. Interesting that he would lie about facts of BIOLOGY but not about Santa. Man's got some weird priorities.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 8:52 AM on December 26, 2008


At around age four, some adult or another asked me if I believed in Santa. I considered it carefully and responded "I'm going to believe in Santa until I'm 9. Then I'm not going to believe anymore." My mother was pretty astounded that she'd managed to raise a child who by the ripe old age of four recognized belief as a choice.

Please to explain your epistemology. Seriously, I can't believe anything that flatly contradicts reality, and I'm trying to gain understanding here.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 9:04 AM on December 26, 2008


I think what causes my eyes to roll about Graham's piece is not so much his conclusions but the cut-and-dried approach to something as non-cut-and-dried as childrearing. I don't actually disagree with him (no Santa for us, though we don't ban stories or discussion about him from our three year old), but at the same time, it's a little like reading a Vulcan journal on child-raising.

My son has seen me kill a bug. Does he now know what death is? Will he know when grandma dies, or the cat? Will it give him nightmares, make him always afraid of dying? What about when he sees a roadkill dog and realizes what it is?

The thing about children is that we envy their ignorance, the lack of dark, fearful stuff in their heads, even though we know that, for their own good, we can't keep them that way. But the knowledge of something like, say, nuclear war...how can I be eager to explain that to my child? When I still have nightmares about it myself now and then?

Yes, you should tell children the truth as often and as early as you can without damaging them, but finding that line is hard. It's never the same for each child. And even taking a child's need to be told the truth seriously is an incredibly recent concept. Not surprising that so many parents still flail around to find it. Graham saying "don't lie to your kids" comes off sounding profound but utterly fails to grasp what actually raising and teaching a new human being (and being terrified of screwing them up in the process) feels like.
posted by emjaybee at 9:05 AM on December 26, 2008 [2 favorites]


> that I was raised by wild dogs, and my parents found me begging for food behind McDonald's

I had an ungovernable impulse to run up Down escalators whenever I encountered one. My parents told their friends I was raised in the wilderness by salmon.
posted by jfuller at 9:07 AM on December 26, 2008 [7 favorites]


Speaking of truths that set you free, I used to think I was stoopid for thinking Graham was a tool, until I read this.

And for telling kids a "lie," the fun part is when they catch on to the game and start telling them back. This is how running jokes are born. Most kids can handle being told they were found behind a fast food joint or raised by wild salmon. And now that we have photoshop, you can confront them with the evidence!

I don't mess with the lies people tell their children, though. If a kid says mom or dad says blah blah blah and then the sprout comes to me and it's very clear - and it always is - that they are doubting that thing, I just say something bland like "Mom has her reasons for telling you that, not everybody thinks that but people think a lot of things." I may have said this 387 times during the last election. And it comes up a lot during the holidays, what with baby jesus and all. It also comes up with parents who have whack, and wildly inconsistent, views on health.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:50 AM on December 26, 2008


At around age four, some adult or another asked me if I believed in Santa. I considered it carefully and responded "I'm going to believe in Santa until I'm 9. Then I'm not going to believe anymore." My mother was pretty astounded that she'd managed to raise a child who by the ripe old age of four recognized belief as a choice.

Please to explain your epistemology. Seriously, I can't believe anything that flatly contradicts reality, and I'm trying to gain understanding here.


Let me give you an example from the theological world (which has turned up in at least one out of ten threads here.) When I meditate, I use Tibetan deities as part of my practice. I am choosing to believe in them while I sit on the meditation cushion, and wonderful things happen. However, when I get in a car accident or win the lottery I do not for a minute believe that Padmasambhava had anything to do with it.
posted by kozad at 11:04 AM on December 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


Emjaybee, you said a mouthful. Very wise.

Kirth Gerson, re: Sublimity, there is no rational reason that chocolate is OK as dessert for supper, but not OK as any part of breakfast.

Well, based on the way my kids act when they're loaded up on chocolate versus a better-balanced breakfast, there is a very rational reason for sending them to school with something in their belly that will keep them going til lunch and won't have them bouncing off the walls like rabid weasels. FWIW we don't eat chocolate after dinner, either, for the same reason.

But the point I was trying to make was not that chocolate croissants (or whatever) are immoral. I'm talking about the human need for occasions when you *totally* break the rules. Whoa, you wake up and there's a stocking or basket full of candy! How awesome, go for it! Look, Santa brought us that big fancy (expensive) dollhouse, oh my gosh, what a great surprise!

Eventually kids are able to moderate, to delay gratification, to plan and save and stuff, and eventually you need to be explicit about how to make decisions about these things. And obviously individual kids vary about when they can handle those concepts. But little little kids (preschool) sure can't, and as far as I can see most elementary aged kids still have a lot of trouble with it--and still have a huge capacity for fantasy and imagination. The mythological figures of the holidays fit right in.

Finally--lots of stories here of people telling kids lies just to be edgy, mean, or hurtful. That's a whole different thing and I think it's cruel.
posted by Sublimity at 11:14 AM on December 26, 2008


emjaybee- this thread may be largely about Santa Claus, but Paul Graham's essay was about lying to kids in general, not just about Santa Claus.

The thing about children is that we envy their ignorance, the lack of dark, fearful stuff in their heads, even though we know that, for their own good, we can't keep them that way.

Children lack dark, fearful stuff in their heads? Seriously? Perhaps these are adults that don't remember what childhood was really like (or maybe just had really lucky childhoods).
posted by Jpfed at 1:58 PM on December 26, 2008


I am choosing to believe in them while I sit on the meditation cushion, and wonderful things happen.

Does. Not. Compute.

I don't think you're lying or mistaken. It's more likely that our brains are just different. The closest mapping I can make is what happens when I read or watch fiction. While I'm watching "King Lear," I really care about Lear. I worry about him and I'm sad when bad things happen to him. So I understand the idea of giving into a fiction and playing by its rules.

But I don't BELIEVE that Lear exists.

Unless we're talking about the same thing and just using the word "believe" in different ways.

I can certainly enjoy "King Lear" even though I know it's not real. What I can't do is choose to believe it's real. I just can't. If you're claiming you can do that, you have what seems to me like a magical power.
posted by grumblebee at 2:09 PM on December 26, 2008


when my cousins and i were about 4 or 5, Grandpa would tell family stories.

about working on the railroad and getting his head caught in the couplings of 2 freight cars. he said was young and dumb so his skull was was still very hard, or something like that.

his brother in a slaughter-house was pinned to the wall by a bull, but the bulls horns were so long that there was room for Uncle to wriggle free. he couldn't drop to the floor because of the hooves, so he clambered up on the bulls head on to the the back and jumped out of the pen. (Perseus myth.?)

as we got older and picked up bits of info from other family members, Grandpa adjusted but still embellished the story: we always liked his version better. (so maybe i've got some details wrong but it makes a better story.)

family mythology.? i never had the chance to record all this, Grandpa never seemed to attach much historical importance to it.

sadly, he didn't live long enough to continue this cycle of stories (myths) with his grand-children.
posted by lemuel at 2:20 PM on December 26, 2008


This is what I'm disagreeing with; I firmly believe that it's okay for children to treat fantasy as real, and that doing so can enrich their lives, the same way the belief in religion can enrich the lives of adults, regardless of whether it's logical, or correct, or true.

And I'd appreciate it if you acknowledged that those of us in the No Santa camp are not suggesting that imagination and fantasy are bad. I've certainly never suggested as much, and haven't seen anyone say so here. Have you?

Furthermore, it's grating to have to constantly defend against this ends-justify-the-means crap. Certainly we can find a silver lining in all manner of things, but that doesn't stop us from considering the amount of possible harm, or figuring out of there are better ways to achieve the goal minus said harm.
posted by odinsdream at 4:29 PM on December 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


And I'd appreciate it if you acknowledged that those of us in the No Santa camp are not suggesting that imagination and fantasy are bad. I've certainly never suggested as much, and haven't seen anyone say so here. Have you?

Well, let's see:

-There's a difference between embracing fantasy and getting lost in the magic, and being lied to.

-I didn't for a second believe these worlds were real.

-There's still all kinds of room for fairy tales and make-believe and "let's pretend" with telling a kid that this actual tangible present right here that you unwrapped yourself was delivered by a jolly old elf in the North Pole and expecting them to believe it. Play is one thing, artifice is another.

While the people who said these things (all of whom I respect greatly, incidentally, even if I do disagree with them) all embrace fantasy, it only seems to be fantasy to the extent that it's a known fantasy--it's okay to love unicorns, as long as you don't think one is going to trot up to your back door. What I've been trying to say is that it's perfectly possible to be, or raise, a mentally healthy child who at one point or another has blissfully and fully embraced false, unverified beliefs, and I don't think there's any reason to look down on the children who do believe somewhat silly, ludicrous things, or any reason to look down on the parents who may or may not be complicit in creating these false beliefs.

See, I actually totally agree with something grumblebee just said: I can certainly enjoy "King Lear" even though I know it's not real. What I can't do is choose to believe it's real. I just can't. If you're claiming you can do that, you have what seems to me like a magical power. I can't believe these things are real at this point in my life, either. But that doesn't mean that I can't understand how truly believing in these things can enrich the life of the believer, which is why I don't begrudge anyone those beliefs, be they beliefs in Santa or in a cotton-candy filled afterlife.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:01 PM on December 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


> And I'd appreciate it if you acknowledged that those of us in the No Santa camp are not
> suggesting that imagination and fantasy are bad. I've certainly never suggested as much,
> and haven't seen anyone say so here. Have you?

It is really, really hard to tell. There do seem to be commenters who sincerely believe that propagating cultural myths like leprechauns or Père Noël to children who do not yet draw an adultlike hard line between empirical fact and cultural mythos counts as a lie, like testifying falsely in court or telling Congress that Saddam has nukes. Frankly, I have a hard time suppressing the giggles.
posted by jfuller at 5:29 PM on December 26, 2008 [3 favorites]


I agree with you PhoBWanKenobi: it's possible to raise healthy, happy children who believe that Santa exists. And I suspect there are advantages to believing in false things. As an atheist, I naturally think God is imaginary. Yet I've seen how believing in Him has helped many people. (It's hurt people, too, but that doesn't change the fact that it has helped people.)

In a way, this whole discussion -- pro or con lying to your kid about Santa -- is stupid. It's like asking whether or not a guy should buy his girlfriend flowers. Obviously, that depends on the specific girl. Does she like flowers?

A parent's number one job is to KNOW HIS CHILD. A grown up who knew the little me would have understood that it wouldn't have been a good idea to lie to me about Santa. But that doesn't mean it would be a bad idea to lie to the little you about it.

And honestly, it's not the most important aspect of parenting: whether or not the be honest about Santa. If you're generally loving, honest and consistent with your kids, that's what's important. I'm guessing that the kids who were traumatized by discovering Santa was fake had other problems going on in their lives (e.g. grownups who were dishonest with them about many things).

If I had no idea whether a child could handle (or would enjoy) believing in Santa or not, I would opt for honesty. But it would be very strange to raise a child to the point where he was old enough to understand Santa and not know enough about him to know whether it would be a good or bad game to play with him.
posted by grumblebee at 5:40 PM on December 26, 2008 [2 favorites]


One more thing: if someone really believes 100% in Santa, he's not all that magical. By which I mean that there's a sweet spot for unicorns. They're not interesting if you think, "yeah, they're fake." And they're also not interesting if you can go see them in a zoo. (Sure, they might be interesting scientifically, but they wouldn't be as magical.) The sweet spot for unicorns is when you think they MIGHT exist but you aren't sure -- when you WANT them to exist and feel like it's just possible that they might. The most magical things in life are those things that are -- or might be -- around the corner.

I think it's very important that kids experience mystery.

I also think there are tons of ways to give them this experience without lying to them. There are tons of things that ARE mysterious. Is there life on other planets? What happened before the Big Bang? What's deep down in the unexplored regions of the ocean? What does the old guy across the street have hidden in his basement?
posted by grumblebee at 5:45 PM on December 26, 2008


I think it's very important that kids experience mystery.

What's baffling to me is that you feel the need to invent mysteries for them when we live in a world full of mystery and wonder. The need to do so seems to cheapen the actual mysteries and wonders that exist.

Just ask anyone who's tried to sell books about science while competing with sellers of books about how aliens control the government.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:28 PM on December 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think it's very important that kids experience mystery.

What's baffling to me is that you feel the need to invent mysteries for them


Huh? I do? Like what?
posted by grumblebee at 7:37 PM on December 26, 2008


Santa Claus = Freemason conspiracy theories!
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 8:14 PM on December 26, 2008


Just ask anyone who's tried to sell books about science while competing with sellers of books about how aliens control the government.

obama's father WAS an alien ...
posted by pyramid termite at 8:56 PM on December 26, 2008


What's baffling to me is that you feel the need to invent mysteries for them when we live in a world full of mystery and wonder. The need to do so seems to cheapen the actual mysteries and wonders that exist.

There it is. Santa, the Bunny, the Fairy - they're all invented. To invent characters that hide simple known facts (Daddy fills the stockings; Mommy takes the tooth and leaves money, etc.) encourages superstition.

You want some mystery? Have you not noticed that the number of things in the real world that nobody understands is huge? Tell your children about those. Encourage them to figure stuff out, rather than make a magical being the cause. What they figure out from Santa-belief is that their parents are fibbing. If you're OK with that, do go on. Please note that some people are not on board that bus.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:01 AM on December 27, 2008 [2 favorites]


Encourage them to figure stuff out, rather than make a magical being the cause. What they figure out from Santa-belief is that their parents are fibbing

As someone way upthread pointed out, yep, and that's another important part of why the myths matter. Gives kids a chance to ease into figuring some of those "number of things in the real world that nobody understands", before moving on to the tougher stuff. Things are seldom what they seem...there are way worse ways to learn that, than in the context of your parents giving you gifts.

Guys, I'm totally with you on the science angle--I taught college-level science for several years, I understand the frustration about aliens, etc. But I also recognize that storytelling and mythmaking is really deeply rooted in the human psyche, and people need stories and myths.

Having wonder and respect for the natural world, and logical and quantitative skills, doesn't exempt people from needing and responding to mythology *as a way to understand other people*.

I spent no small effort banging my head against the wall of teaching thermodynamics to freshmen. I would still say that human nature is far more complicated and difficult (and dare I say, important?) for people to understand than the natural world. IMO what tops the list of the "number of things in the real world that nobody understands" includes things like "why do the teenaged boys on the south side of my town want to shoot the teenaged boys in in the Central District, and vice versa?" (I will not accept "Because their parents LIED TO THEM ABOUT SANTA" as an answer...) and "WTF Madoff??"

I need to teach my kids that stuff like that happens, but sorry, I'm not going to let them "figure stuff out", in lieu of Santa. And I look forward to the conversations about "gee, isn't consciousness trippy" and "didja ever wonder what happened before the Big Bang", but for my 4 and 8 year olds, that's a little deep. We baked cookies for Santa, though, and they got to practice some numbers and chemical reactions that they could really appreciate!
posted by Sublimity at 9:19 AM on December 27, 2008 [3 favorites]


I love how quickly the false dichotomy of "teach about Santa OR teach about science" sprung up in this discussion.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:13 PM on December 27, 2008 [2 favorites]


After a mere 140+ comments.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:36 PM on December 27, 2008


After a mere 140+ comments.

Really?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 3:23 PM on December 27, 2008


I love how quickly the false dichotomy of "teach about Santa OR teach about science" sprung up in this discussion.

I love how fucking nervous discussions like this one make religious liberals.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:47 PM on December 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


I love how fucking nervous discussions like this one make religious liberals.

Come, come. Just pointing out that having fun with the Santa myth *and* showing your child the wonders of the natural world can exist simultaneously. Sheesh.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 8:53 PM on December 27, 2008


I love how fucking nervous discussions like this one make religious liberals.

Santa is for religious people? I know both irreligious people who take on Santa's role and religious people who don't, so I doubt Santa-follower=religious.
posted by ersatz at 2:46 AM on December 28, 2008


I'm gonna got out on a limb and guess that Paul Graham doesn't have kids.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:40 AM on December 28, 2008


Let me give you an example from the theological world (which has turned up in at least one out of ten threads here.) When I meditate, I use Tibetan deities as part of my practice. I am choosing to believe in them while I sit on the meditation cushion, and wonderful things happen. However, when I get in a car accident or win the lottery I do not for a minute believe that Padmasambhava had anything to do with it.

Rather late, but your meaning is ambiguous to me:

Do you believe in the independent existence of the Tibetan deities but believe they do not intervene in your car accidents and lotteries?
Do you believe in the Tibetan deities, not as independently existing entities, but as some sort of useful concept or focus for meditation?

These, for example, make sense to me. What would correspond to the "believe in Santa till age 9" would be something like:

While meditating, you believe that the Tibetan deities independently exist, but while not meditating, you believe they do not independently exist.

With meanings of belief that involve asserting the truth of propositions, this sort of thing and the Santa example don't make any sense to me.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 7:13 AM on December 28, 2008


Santa is for religious people? I know both irreligious people who take on Santa's role and religious people who don't, so I doubt Santa-follower=religious.

That's not it at all. The discussion is ultimately about finding out that a cherished and emotionally important belief isn't actually true. That tends to make people who believe in some precepts of their religious tradition while discarding others nervous, in my experience.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:04 AM on December 28, 2008


It made me think of this song.
posted by mike3k at 7:23 AM on January 4, 2009


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