September 21, 2011

What Are We to Make of Parents Who Lie to Their Children?

make believe

The creativity and imagination of a child is thrilling to witness. It is great to see how the mind works when unfettered by social convention, something only the most creative among us seem able to carry into adulthood. Nobody has to tell a child to "think outside the box;" that is the only way they know how to think.

And yet, it is difficult to imagine that lying to our children simply because we find it entertaining is ethically sound. And yes, this includes the socially acceptable Santa Claus lies. A child is supposed to be able to trust his or her parent, and we are right to object when a parent violates that trust. I suppose an argument can be made that it may be beneficial to lie in situations where doing so helps to protect one's feelings (i.e., "white lies"), but that is not what we're talking about here. Adopting the Santa charade is not about protecting the child's feelings; parents who do this usually do it because they enjoyed it as children and now enjoy providing their children with a similar experience.

Imagine the contempt we might feel for a parent who not only failed to teach the important lesson that cartoon violence is different from real-world violence but actually taught that the two were equivalent. Imagine how we would regard a parent who deliberately taught that the world was a hostile place where one should attack first and show no mercy to others. Sadly, you don't have to work too hard to imagine these scenarios. We know something far worse is playing out in countless households.

I've heard it said that Santa, the Easter bunny, tooth fairy, and others are "gateways" to religious indoctrination. They probably were in my childhood, at least to some degree. I recognize that they do not have to be for everyone. It is not difficult to imagine an atheist parent telling their children that Santa is real and Jesus is not. Still, the thought of atheist parents giving their children the "gift" of make-believe makes me somewhat uncomfortable unless it is part of a deliberate strategy to teach critical thinking, skepticism, etc. Even then, it does seem like most parents could figure out how to do these things without lying.